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The War on Democracy

The ballot box and the courthouse are two pillars of democracy that have long defined American democracy. We have embraced the notion of one person one vote, and the ability to have our disagreements resolved by a jury of our peers. These ideals have come under attack in Wisconsin this year and the result is bad for democracy. Attorney Dixon Gahnz discusses recent laws that limit democracy and people's rights.

The ballot box and the courthouse are two pillars of democracy that have long defined American democracy.  We have embraced the notion of one person one vote, and the ability to have our disagreements resolved by a jury of our peers.  These ideals have come under attack in Wisconsin this year and the result is bad for democracy. A law was recently passed requiring a driver’s license or other approved photo identification in order to vote.  The proponents of this bill pointed to voter fraud, but presented no proof.  The bill passed and an obstacle to voting was put in place.  If you do not have the appropriate identification you cannot vote.  In order to get the proper identification you have to spend money. If you do not have the money you cannot vote.  The end result is a poll tax designed to keep the poor away from the voting booth.  Disenfranchising voters is never good for democracy. There is a woman in Brokaw, Wisconsin who serves on the Village board.  She does not have a driver’s license or a birth certificate.  It does not matter that she was born in Brokaw, or that she has voted in every election since she was eighteen. The voter identification law prohibits her from voting unless she spends hundreds of dollars to get a birth certificate and identification. A second law was recently passed limiting the fees an attorney could collect to three times the amount in controversy.  The sponsor of the bill was Robin Vos, a landlord/politician who had been forced to pay over $20,000 in attorneys fees because of his violations of the landlord tenant laws.  The electricity went out 25 times in less than three months and the stairway was so rickety that the apartment was not safe.  Mr. Vos and other landlords are much safer now because of this new law.  The old rule was that if a tenant won, she got her damages and her attorney’s fees from the landlord.  The idea was to make it expensive to unlawfully retain a tenant’s security deposit and give a lawyer some incentive to take the case.  This new law takes care of that.  If there is a dispute and the tenant wins $1,000 the most the landlord would have to pay in legal fees is $3,000. The bill extends beyond landlord/tenant and into every area where there is a fee shifting provision.  Thus, employment discrimination case, consumer law cases, fair debt collection actions, lemon law cases, and false advertising cases are all impacted by this new law. There are not a lot of individuals who have the time, the training or the skills to go to court and fight with a  credit card company over $75 in fraudulent fees or a big box store over deceptive advertising, or a car dealership over a lemon.  These people have had the option of going to a lawyer and asking for help.  The lawyer then had the option of taking the risk that she would win the case and get paid.  It was a great system that kept marginal cases out of court.  If the lawyer lost, he did not get paid.  That system is gone now.  A lawyer cannot afford to take on a case where his fees are capped at $225.  When lawyers stop taking these cases, the court house is effectively closed to those harmed.  The court house will remain open to those with money, so have no doubt that landlords will continue to evict, and mortgage companies will continue to foreclose, but the individual has lost the practical ability to fight back. Democracy is too often taken for granted in this country.  It is the only system we have ever known.  There are those who would limit that democracy, take away the rights of individuals, and cloak it in propaganda vilifying lawyers and lawsuits and conjuring visions of voter fraud.  Do not be fooled.

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