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Friday, October 22, 2010

Of Fallible Umpires and Rogue Judges

There is a striking similarity between blown calls by umpires in baseball and blown calls by judges in our legal system. We now know, unambiguously, that umpires make mistakes—sometimes excruciatingly costly ones. According to baseball purists, those mistakes “are part of the game.” Yet there is a rising chorus of calls for Major League Baseball to adopt some sort of instant replay, which has been embraced by both the NFL and NBA, because egregious errors that affect results more than the skill of the contestants themselves ruin the integrity of the game.

Judges also make bad calls sometimes. We know this because there is a judicial form of instant replay: the appeals process, including review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Occasionally, even the politically diverse Court clearly indicates to a lower court, through a unanimous decision, that the judge(s) blew a legal call.

Umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in major league baseball history. After watching the televised replay, Joyce immediately (and tearfully) admitted his mistake. This notwithstanding, baseball commissioner Bud Selig declined to change the call. But would he have acted differently if Joyce had maintained, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that his call was correct—or even worse, that he deliberately called the runner safe?

Turning back to the law, what happens if lower-court judges thumb their collective noses at the Supreme Court? This is a timely question, because it is about to be placed squarely in front of the Supreme Court.

In early 1999 John and Theresa Sophocleus were forced out of their home by Alabama’s Department of Transportation (ALDoT) as part of a highway-widening project. In court ALDoT representatives testified that they needed to raze the home immediately to ensure timely progress on the road project. In fact, the Sophocleus home was not razed for nine months, during which it was used as a residence for contractors employed by ALDoT. In other words, the specific public purpose given by ALDoT to justify the seizure, made under threat of $10,000-per-day fines, proved to be invalid.

Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus sued ALDoT, arguing that the taking was unconstitutional since the state did not live up to the expressed public purpose used to justify the seizure and that therefore ownership should revert to them. The first federal judge to consider motions in the case, Susan Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, issued three summary judgments in their favor. Their case then was taken over by Judge Myron Thompson of the same court, who ruled that they should have taken their claim to the state courts rather than the federal courts. But as Alabama State Code 18-1A-et seq. makes clear, as affirmed by Judge Walker, the correct venue for plaintiffs in a civil rights case is the federal judiciary. By an 8–0 ruling (Justice John Roberts had not yet joined the Court) the Supreme Court in 2005 remanded the case back to the district court for remedy.

After stalling four full years, Judge Thompson and the judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to admit the earlier call had been blown and reiterated the previously overturned position. Once again, Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus will appeal to the Supreme Court.

The original writ they filed with the Supreme Court was only 12 pages long. Their point, simple and powerful, was supported fully by the Supreme Court. Make no mistake—a unanimous Supreme Court decision overturning their ruling means the lower court was told, loudly, that it blew the call. So why did it take Judge Thompson over four years to respond? One interpretation is that he knowingly intended to frustrate the stated direction of the Supreme Court by delaying remedial action until either Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus or their critical witnesses died or became mentally incapacitated. More important: Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has the lower court refused to admit it blew the call? This is the critical question for all Americans who believe that they live under the rule of law.

Presumably, the Supreme Court has a deep interest in whether lower-court judges follow their instructions—that is, actually follow the law. The law of the land is enshrined in the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. If lower-court judges do not pay attention to the Supreme Court, they are not upholding the law. By implication, we do not live under the rule of law; rather, we live under the arbitrary and capricious rule of rogue judges, with justice denied when it suits their purpose. The judge is attempting to deny the rule of law to Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus.

Rogue judges impose their own capricious rulings because they know there is little consequence for their actions. By virtue of lifetime appointments to the federal bench, and with scant likelihood of impeachment by Congress, they can use the legal process and their position to effectively deny justice to victims of civil rights violations. We all have a critical stake in curtailing this type of judicial behavior.

There is one, and only one, remaining protection for Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus against the denial of justice orchestrated by rogue Judge Thompson and the complicit appellate judges: Instead of remanding the case back to the lower court for remedy again, presumably with the same expected result, the Supreme Court should impose a remedy. Under the best of circumstances, the chance that the Supreme Court will take a particular case is remarkably slim. Nonetheless, the Sophocleuses hit a home run their first time at bat, but have been denied justice due to interference by rogue umpires. We can only hope that on appeal this time, the Supreme Court ensures that their previous home run is ruled a grand slam on behalf of all Americans.

  • A native Virginian, David N. Laband received his Ph.D. in economics from Virginia Tech in 1981. He is the author of 9 books and over 130 articles in peer-reviewed journals. His research and teaching interests cover a wide range of topics related to economics and policy.