Thursday, September 16, 2010

Putting "The Rule of Law" in Perspective

This year's Michigan Supreme Court election will spotlight the "Rule of Law" issue. Voters will be asked to decide between Justice Robert Young and Judge Mary Beth Kelly (the Rule of Law judges) and Justice Alton Davis and Judge Denise Langford Morris (the "empathy" judges).

Simply described, RoL judges interpret the constitution, laws, and contracts by the plain meaning of the words used by their authors. Empathy judges, in contrast, interpret the same words in order to reach a desired result.

Here's a perfect example -- Elizabeth Weaver's parting gift to Michigan jurisprudence. The case is Shay v Aldrich, decided August 23, 2010. In short, the plaintiff sued five defendants, alleging that they had assaulted him. Partway through the case, the plaintiff settled with two of the defendants and signed two separate releases, each releasing a defendant "together with all other persons, firms and corporations, from any and all claims, demands and actions which I have now or may have arising out of any and all damages, expenses, and any loss or damage resulting from an incident occurring on September 8, 2004."

After the plaintiff signed these releases, the other defendants moved to dismiss the remaining claims, arguing that the plaintiff had waived them. The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed. finding the releases unambiguous. The Michigan Supreme Court then granted leave to appeal and reinstated the claims against the remaining defendants, finding in a 4-3 opinion by Weaver that the plaintiff did not intend -- despite the clear language of the releases -- to waive any claims against the remaining defendants. The Weaver opinion equated "broad" with "vague" and permits the parties to use extrinsic evidence to introduce ambiguities into a contract, thus necessitating "interpretation" where there previously was none.

The impact of this opinion will not be limited to releases. Why should it be? Why are releases to be treated differently from every other kind of contract? Under the new Weaver rule, a contract means what it was intended to mean, regardless of what it actually says. Under the rule of law, contracts mean what they say, without an interpretive middleman in a black robe.

This Weaverizing of contracts is symptomatic of the elitist arrogance of the ruling class -- they know better than you do what you need and what you really mean. It is this arrogance that leads to Congress passing 3,000 page bills it hasn't read, doesn't understand, and has no intention of reading or understanding. Government power is thereby transferred to the bureaucracy, and the people are left with no option but litigation, hence the constitutional challenge to Obamacare. If we don't have the courts, we are lost.

In the July-August 2010 issue of the American Spectator, Angelo Codevilla published a brilliant article, America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution. Please read it here. He describes the ruling class as considering itself "saviors of the planet" and "improvers of humanity." It is a penetrating, brilliant article, which he has expanded to book form.

A portion of Codevilla's article describes the interaction between the ruling class and the courts:

Disregard for the text of laws -- for the dictionary meaning of words and the intentions of those who wrote them -- in favor of the decider's discretion has permeated our ruling class from the Supreme Court to the lowest local agency. Ever since Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in 1920 (Missouri v. Holland) that presidents, Congresses, and judges could not be bound by the U.S. Constitution regarding matters that the people who wrote and ratified it could not have foreseen, it has become conventional wisdom among our ruling class that they may transcend the Constitution while pretending allegiance to it. They began by stretching such constitutional terms as "interstate commerce" and "due process," then transmuting others, e.g., "search and seizure," into "privacy." Thus in 1973 the Supreme Court endowed its invention of "privacy" with a "penumbra" that it deemed "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." The court gave no other constitutional reasoning, period. Perfunctory to the point of mockery, this constitutional talk was to reassure the American people that the ruling class was acting within the Constitution's limitations. By the 1990s federal courts were invalidating amendments to state constitutions passed by referenda to secure the "positive rights" they invent, because these expressions of popular will were inconsistent with the constitution they themselves were construing.

By 2010 some in the ruling class felt confident enough to dispense with the charade. Asked what in the Constitution allows Congress and the president to force every American to purchase health insurance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied: "Are you serious? Are you serious?" No surprise then that lower court judges and bureaucrats take liberties with laws, regulations, and contracts. That is why legal words that say you are in the right avail you less in today's America than being on the right side of the persons who decide what they want those words to mean.

As the discretionary powers of officeholders and of their informal entourages have grown, the importance of policy and of law itself is declining, citizenship is becoming vestigial, and the American people become ever more dependent.

So, the battle for the Michigan Supreme Court is not merely a contest for control of the Supreme Court. It is a fight to regain some measure of the rule of law, to maintain a bulwark against the whims of the ruling class and government bureaucracies, and, perhaps most importantly, to assert our independence as free citizens.

If we don't have the authority to govern our own affairs through written agreements, what is left for us?


  1. You really should rename your blog "An Ultra-Conservative's Plea For A Gutless Judiciary." Throw up a picture of Bob Young and give him a shameless plug, while you're at it.

    If it weren't for "empathy" judges as you call them, we would still live in a society marred by segregated schools, slavery, and oppression. And for the record, judicial activism comes in all shapes and sizes, including so-called "textualism," or "rule of law judges." You simply prefer to give "rule of law" judges a fancy name in an attempt to confuse people and pretend that they're completely impartial, which could not be a bigger farce.

  2. Hey, Mark, glad to see you back. First, let me say that I do support Bob Young, and I do so without any shame or regret -- he's a brilliant man, a gifted writer and jurist, and he's exactly the kind of justice Michigan needs.

    Your comment sounds like you're channeling Teddy Kennedy during the Bork confirmation. Could you get any more hysterical? All of your ilk believe in judicial activism as long as it serves your political agenda (which you can't accomplish through the legislature). When judges try to correct the erroneous rulings of the past, THEN you discover stare decisis.

    Take another look at your comment -- without empathy judges we'd have slavery? Oppression? Ever hear of the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment? And what exactly is "oppression"? Do you think Hugo Black or William Brennan waved their magic wands and made that go away? Was it "empathy" that has killed tens of millions of children in the name of a penumbra emanating from the judicially manufactured right to privacy?

    Do me a favor -- keep reading, start thinking, and start learning. Stop regurgitating the talking points from Bill Maher and the Daily Kos.