Justice for the People: The Late Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses Harrison II

The late Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses Harrison II saw the law as a protector of the weak against the strong. An article on Justice Harrison’s legacy stated that “During his tenure on the Supreme Court, he was most known and honored for demonstrating a commitment to justice and human welfare, writing—either for the majority or in dissent—to defend the poor, the weak, the young and the elderly against corporate or government policies which went against their interests.”  This comment appeared in Illinois Lawyer Now – a publication of the Illinois State Bar Association.

Justice Harrison believed in the equalizing force of the law. He said his role as a judge was “to protect ordinary citizens against wrongdoing by the government, large corporations and powerful individuals.” Justice Harrison saw the need for the courts to be a place where human life and safety were given equal weight as business interests. No shrinking violet was Justice Harrison – he was willing and able to sharply criticize his fellow jurists for what he saw as improper deference to corporate interests at the expense of human safety. The Chicago Tribune said of Justice Harrison: “a gentleman rebel, a distinctly gracious man whose convictions are firm and manners mild.”

His dissenting opinion in First Springfield Bank v. Galman, 188 Ill. 2d 252 (1999) exemplifies his ability to deliver a concise, forceful and stinging viewpoint.

First, Justice Harrison lays out the facts:

May Phillippart is dead because ADM’s driver, Howard Dobson, made the supremely careless decision to leave his tanker truck in a no-parking zone on a busy street by Springfield’s most dangerous intersection near 10 schools, including Phillippart’s, just as classes were letting out. Dobson had no compelling reason for parking where he did. The location just happened to be near his home, and he wanted to take a shower and make some phone calls.

Second, Justice Harrison describes the safety violations by the company driver:

There was no question as to the illegality of Dobson’s actions. He left his truck directly in front of a “No Parking” sign, which he admits that he saw and read. Nor was there any genuine issue as to the danger Dobson created. Expert testimony established that the vehicle presented a major obstruction to traffic and was a hazard to pedestrians who wanted to cross the street. This appraisal was supported by those present on the scene when Phillippart was fatally injured. For the motorists and pedestrians who were forced to maneuver past Dobson’s truck, the risks were readily apparent. From the materials before us, it appears that the only one oblivious to the danger was Dobson himself.

The Justice ponders the jurors likely response to the Supreme Court’s reversal of their verdict:

If the jurors who heard and decided this case ever read the majority’s disposition, I feel certain that they will be as surprised as I was by what my colleagues have made of the facts and the law. Seeing their findings and conclusions so readily disregarded, they are apt to wonder why they even bothered to report for service. I cannot blame them. Their work, their attention, their adherence to the law have all been rendered meaningless, and for no legitimate reason.

Justice Harrison bemoans the majority opinion’s focus on the deceased pedestrian’s conduct and not that of the corporate defendant:

ADM Trucking is a division of Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, an international agribusiness, the self-styled “supermarket to the world.” Phillippart was a high school student. In focusing on Phillippart’s conduct rather than on the carelessness of ADM’s driver and his flagrant violation of the law, what the majority is ultimately saying is that a teenager should be held to a higher standard of care than a multinational corporation. This perverse conception of justice has been expressed before.

He ends with a gavel banging conclusion:

The majority’s position stems, I think, from an antiquated and misguided deference to the demands of private industry. Unlike my colleagues, I do not believe that corporate enterprise must be given precedence over human welfare in order to flourish. If the success of Illinois commerce depends on enabling multinational corporations to maim and kill schoolchildren with impunity, we are lost.

Justice Harrison advocated the role of our civil justice system to protect human welfare by enforcing safety rules. He saw the risk inherent in the courts deferring to business enterprise that endangers human life and limb. His voice speaks the truth that a just society must not elevate business interests of human safety. His legacy will perhaps provide encouragement for those who wish to see our justice system as a protector of safety.