In response to "TLR remembers Lincoln as tort reform champion," an op-ed published Feb. 18, 2013.
I’m not entirely surprised that an ideological outfit like Texans for Lawsuit Reform could praise our 16th President as a champion for their cause and all the while forget that Abe Lincoln was happily a professional trial lawyer.
So if we are going to honor the man, as Texans for Lawsuit Reform so eagerly want to, we should at least be obliged enough to his memory to get a few things right about his career.
Of our 36 lawyer presidents, none saw the inside of a courtroom as often as Lincoln. Indeed, few lawyers can claim to have stood before a jury as often. From his admission to the bar in 1836 to his inauguration 25 years later, Lincoln was involved in hundreds of litigation cases, ranging from simple debt collection to the most complicated patent case in the country. And while the bulk of his practice involved debt and real estate, Lincoln had no moral fits taking on a person suing for money damages.
According to the University of Virginia’s archive, “Lincoln Legal Briefs” (which is dedicated to documenting his legal career), Lincoln’s firm handled at least nine personal injury cases, ranging from premises liability to medical malpractice.
My favorite example is the 1857 case, Macready v. City of Alton. Mary Macready, a New York actress, was walking down the street in Alton, Ill., and fell through some sidewalk construction and badly injured her ankle, leg and back. Lincoln demanded $20,000 but was only able to recover $300 at a jury trial.
Imagine that! Not more than four years before he began prosecuting the war to save the Union, the Great Emancipator was prosecuting a simple P.I. case!
But if you know a little bit about Lincoln, and you’re a not a member of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, that shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. Lincoln, a true lover of the American justice system, had great respect for its foundational practice—the trial by jury.
Juries, as Lincoln well knew, are one of the indispensible features of self-government, where we as representatives of our community decide what practices endanger our safety and wellbeing.
Or as Lincoln put it, in his famous Rock Island Bridge case, “What is reasonable skill and care? This is a thing of which the jury is to judge.” And it’s precisely the thing that Texans for Lawsuit Reform don’t want us as jury to judge.
Law Student, University of Houston Law Center