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Thomas R. Phillips

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The Constitutional Right to a Remedy

Thomas R. Phillips

Of all the rights guaranteed by state constitutions but absent from the federal Bill of Rights, the right to a remedy through open access to the courts may be the most important. The remedy clause, which appears in the constitutions of forty states, usually takes one of two basic forms, but courts have interpreted and applied the clause in a variety of different and often contradictory ways. In this address, Chief Justice Phillips traces the development of the remedy guarantee from its inception in Magna Carta and explication by Coke and Blackstone. Many framers of the original state constitutions in colonial America adopted this guarantee as their own, recognizing it as a constraint on both judicial and legislative power. The Chief Justice examines subsequent judicial interpretations of the remedy clause as a potential check on legislative action limiting tort recoveries, particularly in the employment, construction, and medical malpractice contexts. Although he offers several reasons for caution against too robust a reading of the clause, the Chief Justice ultimately posits an approach that aims to protect absolute rights through equal access to justice, while urging state appellate courts to develop a coherent doctrine of remedies jurisprudence that reflects the continuing importance of the right to a remedy.