Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Disrespecting Democracy

Over the years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has put it's intellectual limitations on display with considerable frequency and has given this observer more than a little reason to question the integrity of the Court. Today, with but a few words, it adds cowardice to its long list of inadequacies, short-sheets democracy, and disrespects litigants who face the Court as truly their last resort.

Law, lawyers and the courts are the stuff which keeps society together. In ways large and small, lawyers put together the deals, settle the estates, document the contracts, and litigate the disputes -- in short, day in and day out they labor, mostly unsung and underappreciated, and always subject to ignorant attack, to keep our affairs on an even keel and to keep our fingers from one another's throats. It is respect for the law and the legal process which prevents neighbors from taking up arms to settle their own disputes and keeps anarchy from the streets. When Shakespeare wanted to demonstrate the dangerous intentions of the speaker, he had a character utter that most misused quote about killing all the lawyers. Billy and his buds knew that, take away the lawyers, take away access to justice, and anarchy would follow.

This is why such a high premium needs to be placed on judicial impartiality and integrity; why the courts need not only to actually give each litigant a fair hearing, but to work so they believe that they had their day in court -- even if it the result is against them.

Too often in Pennsylvania we see judges at every level showing the utter disrespect for the important role of the legal process, for the litigants who appear before them, and for the appearance of justice itself. They do this in many ways, sometimes they display overt friendship with one lawyer or another, by demeaning a party or counsel, or by refusing to explain their decisions to the litigants. Judges of Courts across the Commonwealth are more frequently resorting to one sentence, or even one-word decisions, leaving litigants and their counsel left only to guess at the basis. And worse, to assume that there was no rational basis for the decision -- that the decision was based on prejudice, cronyism, or favoritism of some kind.

And now, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has "led" the way by modeling that behavior. In an important appeal, with grand implications for access to the ballot by third parties, closely watched in political corners near and far, and of more than passing interest to the more than 50,000 Pennsylvania residents who put their names on the line of the Green Party nominations, the Supreme Court refuses to explain itself. They devote but 17 words -- including the date -- in "deciding" the appeal of the Green Party.

"AFFIRMED" is the entire holding, discussion, ruling, and decision of the Court.

Oh, we knew Romanelli would lose, although it was clear that his argument was correct. Apparently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was unable to come up with any justification for the result which they wanted to achieve, so they did what small minds everywhere do when intellectually overwhelmed -- they just gave the finger to those 50,000 residents, the litigants, and fairness.

Hoo-ray for Pennsylvania.

Here it is, the whole damned thing:




No. 106 MAP 2006
Appeal from the order of the
Commonwealth Court at No. 426 MD 2006
entered on 08-24-2006.

DECIDED: October 3, 2006

AND NOW, this 3rd day of October, 2006, the Order of the Commonwealth Court is
hereby AFFIRMED.


roxtar said...

Having been a judge, allow me to defend that opinion. It might help to think of "affirmed" as shorthand for "Yeah, what they said."

Assuming that the lower court wrote an opinion which explained its reasoning, the Supremes didn't need to add any gloss to that decision. Further, there may have been valid jurisprudential reasons for the Supremes to resist the temptation to bloviate on the issue.

When you are on the court of last resort, your official pronouncements take on the force of law. If I was a Supreme Court justice, I hope I would show similar restraint. Otherwise, every aggrieved candidate for dogcatcher would point to that decision as a basis for election-crippling litigation.

By simply affirming the lower court, the Supremes are able to say "The lower court correctly stated the law, so don't waste your time and ours with any bullshit lawsuits n this issue that you cannot possibly win."

OTOH, they may all be intellectually craven cowards. I have no experience with those folks. Just offering another perspective...

A Big Fat Slob said...


I'll have to disagree.

Of course their opinions take on the force of law -- that's their job.

It is particularly their job to produce that opinion when, among other things, the issue has never been addressed, when the executive branch is said to be misapplying the law (an argument pretty obviously correct), and when the issue goes to the very heart of Democracy -- ballot access.

Apart from all those special reasons in this case, to refuse to issue an opinion is to tell the litigants that their case isn't worth the time and effort for us to address the questions which brought you here. That never serves any purpose. While courts frequently treat cases an unimportant, and while in the larger scheme of jurisprudence cases are frequently unimportant, to the litigants those cases are hte most important ones. To turn their backs on the parties and sniff at their cause undermines the judicial process and promtoes disrespect for and distrust of the process.

As far as other litigants using the issue, isn't that what the Supreme Court is supposed to do -- settle the issue so that the direction is clear for the executive branch to apply the law?

And if it isn't clear enought for the next case, then isn' that the way our legal system was designed to work -- the slow, purposeful development of principles of law by the accretion of holdings on a case-by-case basis?

If the case was "bullshit", a proposition I have to completely reject, but if it were, then considering all of those interests at stake that I discussed in the post and above, the Court should have laid it out and made it clear why they and so many others (including me) were so deluded. If it were all bullshit, that would have been very easy for the Court to do.

Instead, they shirked their duty, gave credence to an executive branch interpretation of the law that an election is not always an "election", denied ballot access to a third-party candidate, and, byt refusing to "bloviate" assured another round of cases the next time the issue presents itself.

In other words, they did what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does so often -- they failed.

roxtar said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said. Perhaps I should have couched my remarks as an "explantion" of the decision rather than as a "defense."

As fate would have it, I've been licensed to practice in two of the few states that do not have intermediate courts of appeal (NV & WV). In WV, you don't even have the right to have your appeal heard by the Supremes. They can summarily reject it on an "upperdown" vote without giving any explanation at all.

I guess I supposed things would be different where there is an intermediate court of appeal, but that's what happens when you assume. Mea culpa.

A Big Fat Slob said...

Typically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears appeals by cert -- they can decide which cases they want to hear. But, for election cases in which the Commonwealth Court (usually an intermediate appellate court) has original jurisdiction, the appeal is of right under the Constitution.

As usual in these cases, the Greens sought an appeal of right and by cert. The Sup Ct granted the cert petition on the issue of first impression -- viz., interpretation of the Constitution and statute as to what constituted an election. Then they refused to answer the question.

(Curiously, the Commonwealth Court decision affirmed here is the only opinion which that court has rendered in the last almost ten years which is NOT available on line at the Commonwealth Court site.)