THE PLANK MARCH 3, 2008
Remember the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, the 22-year-old former Halliburton worker in Iraq who was allegedly drugged, gang-raped, and locked in a storage shed until the State Department rescued her after her congressman intervened? Thanks to an order signed by Paul Bremer, employees of U.S. contractors in Iraq are beyond the reach of the Iraqi criminal justice system, leaving them effectively in a legal black hole, as Michael Walzer wrote in our last issue. They could technically be tried in U.S. federal court for offenses committed in Iraq, but logistically that would be very difficult and the Justice Department has shown no interest in prosecuting Jones's case, meaning her assailants almost certainly won't face any criminal penalties.
But, to make things worse, as Peggy Garrity points out in an op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times, Jones also will likely be unable to pursue a lawsuit in civil court. For one thing, Halliburton claims it has mysteriously lost the doctor's report and photographs taken by a military doctor the day after the rape occurred, so it would hard for her to build a case in the first place. But even if she could, her employment contract stipulated that disputes would be resolved through a binding arbitration process, which lacks (among other things) a jury, rules of evidence, an appeals process, and--perhaps most importantly--media access and a transcript. Federal courts in Texas, Garrity notes, have recently proven fastidious about upholding binding arbitration clauses in all cases. Now, it's true that she signed the contract of her own volition--binding arbitration clauses are becoming increasingly common in all sorts of agreements, and in some instances genuinely are better suited than civil courts to resolving disputes. But when such clauses are used to preclude civil action even in cases like this one, it certainly seems as though they're being misused.