First Winner of Prosmushkin Law Scholarship Essay Contest Announced
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Greg Prosmushkin
Aug 31, 2021

First Winner of Prosmushkin Law Scholarship Essay Contest Announced

Congratulations to Marisa Mullins, the first ever winner of the Prosmushkin Law Scholarship. Marisa is studying Law, with a focus in Delaware & Maryland law, and is pursuing her J.D. at Widener’s Delaware Law School.

Her essay was deemed the best response to the following prompt: What does it mean to be accountable to the law?  For citizens?  For corporations? For government officials?

Marisa’s essay in its entirety can be read below. Check the scholarship page for information on the current prompt and deadline.

“What does it mean to be accountable to the law?”

Accountability—the state of being accountable—is defined in Websters Dictionary as an “obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]  CeCe (my maternal grandmother who raised me while my single mother worked two jobs and went to school at night) would say that accountability is “Owning up for what you did, right or wrong; if you did good, know how to take a compliment and be humble.  If you did bad?  Well, Marisa Ann, you will have to be responsible there too, ‘take your medicine’, and move on.”  Whether is a formal or informal definition that you use, accountability is part of the checks and balances that binds our community together, and our society structured.

Accountability under the law means abiding by the rules and regulations set forth by society and reaping the consequences of one’s actions under that system of rules.  Holding individuals, governments, and organizations accountable under the law is critically important, serving to deter unfavorable action, reduce recidivism, and give strength to the laws that govern our society.  The United States Institute of Peace states on its website, www.usip.org.

“Without accountability, human rights will be denied, crime will flourish, and impunity for past conflict-related crimes will persist, undermining legitimacy and prospects for reconciliation. The concentration of power in any one branch, institution, or level of government often leads to abuse of power and corruption . . . Accountability also aims to mitigate against capture of justice institutions by political and economic spoilers that enables impunity, favoritism, and unequal application of the law.”[2]

Accountability under the law is a broad concept—it may be horizontal or vertical, and may mean different things when applied to citizens, corporations, or government officials.

Individual Citizens

As private individuals, accountability under the law may take many forms varying in degree, frequency, and consequence such as:

  • Routinely:
    • Picking up your trash/not littering in a park to avoid a municipal fine;
    • Paying income taxes—timely and accurately—to avoid penalties and repercussion.
    • Being an attentive driver to avoid moving traffic violations penalties—ranging in outcomes from a warning to a ticket and points on one’s license, to suspension or revocation;
    • Choosing to engage in a lawful profession, and activities that are lawful.
    • Abiding by rules and regulations in our ongoing lives; and, sometimes, ensuring that other individuals are lawful as well.
  • Rare/Extreme Instances:
    • Paying civil penalties to make a restitution;
    • Cooperating with law enforcement or judicial investigations; or even,
    • Fulfillment of a criminal penalty (i.e., probation, incarceration) for one’s actions.

While initially, one may think of individual accountability under the law primarily in terms of a citizen’s private life, there also myriad laws that may impact individuals’ professional lives.  On a blog for the World Bank, Senior Program Officer Kerina Wang wrote, “Technical specialists in public agencies such as medical or legal staff may be subject to investigations or sanctions from review boards or disciplinary committees in their profession.”[3]  Over time, it seems there are more and more laws across all professions—from legal to medical malpractice, to escrow and dual agency laws for real estate agencies, to more extensive bond laws for construction trade subcontractors.

Government Officials 

For government officials, accountability under the law means adhering to rules and regulations that as private citizens, but also that “. . . accountability can be escalated when public administrators are more exposed to internationally-recognized professional standards.”[4]  Government employees may be held legally accountable through participation, finance, and confidentiality/non-disclosure laws; they are often subject to legal accountability both vertically and horizontally.   For example, someone who works within the Intelligence Community may be held to laws and classification guides handed down from the Executive Branch (vertically); at the same time, horizontal accountability exists for information and security purposes (i.e., spillage. leakage). Some legal obligations are life-long.  An interesting dichotomy exists for legislators as these officials are not only held to various laws governing their service, but they may also be key players in the creation, passage, and implementation of laws that govern such accountability.

Corporations

Accountability under the law for corporations may be simple and routine (paying payroll taxes and ensuring an organization is properly licenses in its state for example) or complex and extraordinary. Being accountable under the law for a corporation, means abiding by and being held accountable numerous various laws including but not limited to: (1) workplace, hiring, and discrimination laws; (2) safety and operational laws; (3) banking, accounting, and tax related laws; and (4) trade and consumer protection laws.

Just as what it means to be accountable under the law can vary widely, so can the repercussions organizations face for legal accountability. Organizations face expensive lawsuits, loss of goodwill and trust (stakeholders, shareholders, consumer) and substantial negative financial loss.  The major risk and cost of corporate accountability therefore “[places] environmental and social duties on directors to complement existing duties on financial matters, and legal rights for local communities to seek compensation when they have suffered as a result of directors failing to uphold those duties (Friends of the Earth, 2005).[5]   One of the most widely publicized organizational legal accountability cases was that against Pacific Gas & Energy (“PG&E”)—in part due to the 2000 Oscar Award winning movie Erin Brockovich—where the use of a toxic chemical by the company poisoned wastewater in the California town of Hinkley.  As a part of the legal accountability for organization’s use of hexavalent chromium to guard against corrosion in its cooling towers, PG&E paid $333 Million—at the time in 1993, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action U.S. lawsuit.[6]

Conclusion

In conclusion, to be accountable to the law means being responsible for your actions.  While the laws and consequences attached may vary greatly depending on the action committed or the law being enforced, accountability is abiding by the structure and system of laws that govern our society. Whether as an individual citizen, a government official, or a corporation, accountability under the law means living in a state of accountability where responsibility is demanded by those around us; and sometimes accountability under the law can also mean standing up and “taking your medicine”.

Works Cited

[1]Accountability | Definition of Accountability by Merriam-Webster

[2] Accountability to the Law | United States Institute of Peace (usip.org)

[3] How to make sense of government accountability (worldbank.org)

[4] How to make sense of government accountability (worldbank.org)

[5] Friends of the Earth (2005) Briefing: Corporate Accountability [Accessed June 18, 2021, from http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/corporate_accountability1.pdf]

[6] The Real-Life Erin Brockovich Case (hamerlaw.com)

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