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The fault lines for the 2024 elections are already taking shape with the two parties in diametrically opposed positions and there is no greater divide than over parental rights. That stark difference was no more evident than in a tweet from Rep. Eric Swalwell who mocked the notion of parents making major decisions in the education of their children.
The California Democrat insisted that it is akin to “putting patients in charge of their own surgeries? Clients in charge of their own trials?” Swalwell declared: “Please tell me what I’m missing here … This is so stupid.”
What Rep. Swalwell, a lawyer, is missing is called informed consent.
Since he asked for assistance, let’s deal with each in turn.
Patients and medical consent
American torts have long required consent in medical torts. Indeed, what Swalwell seemed to suggest would be battery for doctors to make the key decisions over surgical goals or purposes. Indeed, even when doctors secured consent to operate on one ear, it was still considered battery when they decided in the operation to address the other ear in the best interests of the patient. Mohr v. Williams (Minn. 1905).
In Canterbury v. Spence the court rejected claims that a physician can make key decisions given “the patient’s right of self-determination.” Thus, doctors in the United States do have to secure the consent of patients in what they intend to do in surgeries or other medical procedures. (There are narrow exceptions such things as “substituted consent” or emergencies that do not apply here).
Ironically, California has one of the strongest patient-based consent rules. As the California Supreme Court stated in Cobbs v. Grant (1972): “Unlimited discretion in the physician is irreconcilable with the basic right of the patient to make the ultimate informed decision regarding the course of treatment to which he knowledgeably consents to be subjected.”
While obviously a patient cannot direct an operation itself, the doctor is expected to explain and secure the consent of the patient in what a surgery will attempt and how it will be accomplished. That is precisely what parents are demanding in looking at the subjects and books being taught in school. Moreover, that is precisely the role of school boards, which has historically exercised concurrent authority over the schools with the teachers hired under the school board-approved budgets.
Clients and legal consent
Swalwell is also wrong in suggesting that clients are not in charge of their own trials. Not only must attorneys secure the consent of their clients on what will be argued in trial, but they can be removed by their clients for failure to adequately represent their interests. It would be malpractice for a lawyer to tell a client, as suggested by Swalwell, that they do not control the major decisions in their own cases.
Ironically, the informed consent under defined in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as the “agreement by a person to a proposed course of conduct after the lawyer has communicated adequate information and explanation about the material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to the proposed course of conduct”).
Obviously, lawyers must follow their own ethical and professional judgment in trials, and tactical choices are generally left up to the lawyers. However, the main objectives of the trial remain for the client to “knowingly and voluntarily assume” Metrick v. Chatz (Ill. App. Ct. 1994).
Much like the claim of parents, clients demand the right to reject a plan for trial and the arguments or means to be used at trial. This right of consent is ongoing and can be exercised at any point in the litigation.
Of course, the key to informed consent is that parents are given the information needed to secure their consent. School districts have been resisting such disclosures and pushing back on parental opposition to major curriculum or policy decisions.
What is most striking about Swalwell’s reference to patients and clients is that they, under his educational approach, have far more voice in a wart removal or a parking ticket challenge than the education of their children. If anything, his analogies support the call for greater parental knowledge and consent.
In other words, “what is missing here” is that Rep. Swalwell’s interpretation could constitute both medical and legal malpractice. It may also constitute political malpractice as both parties now careen toward the 2024 elections.