27 November 2009

A Forgotten Civil Rights Warrior

Yesterday's New York Times has an interesting piece on an important figure in the early history of the civil rights movement: Claudette Colvin. Who, you might ask. You and anyone else who has casually studied the American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks we know. It was her unwillingness to move to the back of the bus that sparked the modern civil rights movement. But Ms. Colvin did the exact same thing almost nine months earlier! Furthermore, her actions were also planned and defended by civil rights activists like Martin Luther King. The Times has more. It is well worth a read.

25 November 2009

Is A Lawn Mower A Vehicle? Nope.

Earlier this month I posed an odd question: Is a lawn mower a vehicle. As you may recall, the Georgia Supreme Court was forced to face this question because someone had been sentenced to a long prison term for stealing a lawn mower. The prison term was only possible because the law makes a distinction between stealing motor vehicles and simple garden tools. Thus, if a riding lawn mower is considered to be equivalent to, say, a car, the longer prison term was justified. However, if the riding mower is nothing more than a garden tool, the longer prison term could not be justified. A few days ago, the Georgia Supreme Court finally cut through this legal Gordian knot. The Associated Press reports:
A riding lawn mower may have four wheels, a powerful engine and can cost as much as a used car. If it's stolen, however, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded Monday that it's not a motor vehicle.

The 4-3 decision overturned the conviction of Franklin Lloyd Harris, who was convicted of felony motor vehicle theft after he loaded a Toro riding mower in 2006 from a Home Depot in Dalton into his van and sped away. Because Harris was a repeat offender, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

This is clearly not an easy call, as the 4-3 split indicates. The case can be found here. It is an interesting read.

23 November 2009

A True Groundbreaker

Brown v. Board of Education is often viewed as being the first major victory in court in the fight to end legal segregation of the races in America. While it most certainly did change the legal landscape concerning racial discrimination, it was not the first victory in this battle. That distinction goes to Lloyd Gaines. The New York Times explains that:
On Dec. 12, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregated University of Missouri Law School had to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was qualified except for the color of his skin, if there was no comparable legal education available to him within Missouri — and there was not.
The New York Times has more on this fascinating individual and case.

15 November 2009

When Must A Judge Step Aside?

Can a United States federal court judge hear a case in which he or she may have an interest in it's outcome? For instance, what if the judge happens to be a hunting buddy of the defendant in a case. Or the judge's son works for the law firm representing the plaintiff. Must the judge step aside? The simple answer under current law is no. But that may change if some members of Congress have their way. Law.com notes:
Under the current system, federal judges get to decide on their own whether to disqualify themselves from cases. Among the proposals being discussed are requiring a second judge to rule on a recusal motion -- rather than leaving the motion to the "targeted" judge -- and making substitution automatic if any party to a case swears an affidavit alleging prejudice. Some lawmakers, including Conyers, have also said in the past that they want a system to review recusal decisions by U.S. Supreme Court justices.
More on this can be found at law.com.

13 November 2009

Suing Judges

In interesting article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal begins by saying:
People who believe they have been wronged by a judge can ask the judge to reconsider, appeal to a higher court or, if they suspect judicial wrongdoing, ask a bar association to investigate. But one thing people can't generally do is sue. The rationale behind the notion -- called absolute judicial immunity -- is straightforward: Judges shouldn't have to defend themselves in court whenever they issue a ruling that makes someone unhappy.
Two recently filed lawsuits in the state of Pennsylvania are trying to pierce this immunity. For more on this, I highly suggest reading the full article.

11 November 2009

Judges Reject Rendition Suit

Extraordinary rendition. This is the program used by the U.S. government shortly after September 11, 2001, whereby terrorist suspects were kidnapped and sent to third countries where they could be interrogated using torture. One such victim, a Canadian who was picked up in Kennedy International Airport in New York and whisked off to Syria where he was detained and tortured for a year, was told by the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals that he cannot sue the U.S. government because Congress did not authorized such a suit. Ben Weiser, of the New York Times writes:
In saying that he could not sue officials involved in his rendition, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled by a vote of 7 to 4 that Congress could always create a civil damages remedy for harms suffered through rendition, but it had not done so.

“We decline to create, on our own, a new cause of action against officers and employees of the federal government,” Chief Judge Dennis G. Jacobs wrote in a 59-page majority opinion joined by six other judges.

Judge Jacobs said that it was for the executive branch to “decide how to implement extraordinary rendition, and for the elected members of Congress — and not for us as judges — to decide whether an individual may seek compensation” from government officials for a constitutional violation.
Setting aside the question of how Congress could have created a remedy for violations arising from a program about which it was not informed by the Bush Administration, there are some very interesting points to take away from this article.

First, in class students are told that hearings in the Court of Appeals are presided over by a three judge panel. So how do we get a 7 to 4 vote here? The decision was actually one made by an "en banc" panel. See here for a full discussion of this.

Second, boiled down to its simplest form, the argument being made by the majority here is they do not have jurisdiction to hear this case. Remember, Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to create lower federal courts and determine the courts' jurisdiction.

Finally, one could argue that this is an example of there being no common law in American federal courts. Many scholars argue that the only sources of law in the federal courts are statutes and the Constitution, not common law. When the judges say "we will not create a remedy," what they are really saying is we will not create a common law (judge-made) remedy.

08 November 2009

Is A Lawn Mower a Motor Vehicle?

This question, as hard as it may be to believe, is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court. Why? Because people who steal "motor vehicles" in Georgia can be sentenced to long prison terms. So can someone who steals a riding lawn mower be eligible for one of these long prison sentences? The answer to this question hinges on whether a lawn mower is a motor vehicle. If so, then the defendant in this case can be sentenced just like he would have had he stolen an automobile. In the end, this is a classic case of statutory interpretation where the court's primary objective is to determine the intent of the legislature when it enacted the law. Law.com has more on this particular case. Once the Georgia court rules, I too will have more.

06 November 2009

Case Before the Court

We are now a full month removed from the First Monday in October, which, as many American know, is the first day of new U.S. Supreme Court term. There are several very interesting cases on the Court's docket this session, ranging from whether films depicting the brutal death of animals are protected by freedom of speech to whether juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without violating the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Wall Street Journal had an excellent piece on the new term last month. It can be found here.

04 November 2009

Vote or Appoint?

Judges in the United States come in all forms. Some are appointed for life (all federal judges and some state judges), some are appointed and then face the electorate for a retention vote. Put another way, if the public doesn't like the judge, they can vote him or her out of the judiciary. And some become judges through open, partisan elections. Supporters of the later form of selecting judges claim that allowing the citizens to chose the judges makes the courts more accountable. But critics say that making judges run for election requires them to raise campaign funds, making them beholden to special interest groups who gave them money. The critics may have one more example to justify their opposition to judicial elections: the race for an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Associated Press has more on this ugly race for the high court and how many in the Keystone State are now questioning whether this is the best way to select a judge.

03 November 2009

Time to Retire

Answering the question of how long one can serve as a judge in the United States is not easy. First, one must distinguish between the federal and state systems. In the federal system, the answer is as long as the judge wants. Federal judges are appointed for life and many serve until they die. In the states, the question is somewhat more complicated. Only a handful of states appoint their judges for life. A majority of states elect their judges by popular vote. Thus, one sits as a judge as long as one can continue to get elected. But a recent Associated Press piece sheds some light on the question of whether states who do not appoint their judges for life force their judges to retire at a certain age. To be honest, I had never given this question much thought. Turns out that over half of the states have laws or constitutional amendments that require their judges to retire at a certain age. In most of these states, 70 is the age of retirement. In Vermont it is 90!