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In seeking justice by jury trials, Camp Lejeune veterans turn to Congress

Court ruled 2022 law lacked sufficient language

A Camp Lejeune gate as seen in 2014. A survivor wants Congress to back jury trials for those sickened by poisoned water at the Marine Corps base.
A Camp Lejeune gate as seen in 2014. A survivor wants Congress to back jury trials for those sickened by poisoned water at the Marine Corps base. (Lance Cpl. Justin A. Rodriguez/U.S. Marine Corps)

“Dance with who brung ya.” This idiom coined by the late, great Texas football coach Darrell Royal is appropriate for the 164,336 individuals with Camp Lejeune-related claims pending before the Department of the Navy and the 1,492 plaintiffs who have filed complaints in the federal court in North Carolina. They were subject to the government’s poisoned water, ruining countless lives and creating a cemetery of dead infants who never had the opportunity to take their first breath.

In this case, it is Congress who brung us to this dance, and we would ask our members of Congress who have supported our cause to address a crucial issue for those who have honorably served — a jury trial for those who have lived with horrible sickness, and for the families of those who have already died of the terminal illnesses caused at the hands of the same government defending itself for covering up that poisoning.

The question here is: who will possess the duty to decide the future of the Marines and family members, alive or dead?

Will it be four federal district judges or a jury of citizens from North Carolina?

As it stands now, the judges have delegated themselves that duty.

But it would be far better to leave the ultimate decision up to the hearts and minds of citizens allowing them to weigh whether or not the actions or inactions by their government necessitates compensation for the injured party.

If it were merely a question of interpreting the law, then a bench trial is an acceptable forum. But in these cases, it is best to have a cross-section of the community answer the ultimate question as to what damage or harm was, has been, and continues to be endured by the marine, and what the adequate and fair compensation should be.

I say this because it is more than a matter of law, but rather, it is determining the incomparable impact on tens of thousands of lives of a government that permitted its servicemembers and families to be poisoned on their watch, without ever warning anyone of the danger. And I believe that twelve women and men have more collective life experiences than any one person. And it is when these collective experiences come together that a verdict that truth dictates and justice demands is returned.

I make these observations because I’ve been there, done that. I was a trial lawyer for 30 years myself: as a judge advocate general officer at Camp Lejeune from 1975 to 1977, an assistant district attorney in Memphis from 1977 through 2001, and an attorney with a litigation firm in Memphis from 2001 to 2004, I tried approximately 300 jury trials, about half of them various degrees of homicide.

When the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 was approved by our Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10, 2022, the duty of judgment was to be performed by yet-to-be notified North Carolinians.

But that all changed on Feb. 6, when the judges signed an order finding the CLJA did not contain the legally necessary language to permit a jury to hear and decide these important matters, despite its explicit statement: “Nothing in this subsection shall impair the right of any party to a trial by jury.”

I cannot, nor will I, praise or criticize the finding of the court. For, it is what it is. And while the beat goes on, 100 cases of plaintiffs designated as “Track 1” are already gearing up for trials to begin in the fall of 2024. Two of those plaintiffs, Susan McBride and David L. Petrie, have recently taken on the heroic effort of appealing the judges’ decision for their fellow plaintiffs.

Since appeals can, and usually do, take a long time to reach a decision, and since several trials could be concluded before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals publishes their opinion on the appeal, I would suggest that, while we await the court’s decision, we go back to the past: Back to where HR 6482 became the CLJA.

As a Camp Lejeune survivor and a “Track 1” plaintiff, I would urge each and every member of Congress and the Senate to sponsor legislation and vote for the immediate passage of a bill supplying the correct language that will allow the victims of this travesty to have their day in court before a jury of their fellow citizens.

Darrell Royal would be pleased we continued to rely on those that “brung” us here in the first place — the elected officials who can forever retain the privilege of saying: Support our troops.

Eddie Peterson resides in Memphis, Tenn. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001.

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