Sunday, April 03, 2011

Where there is a rabbinic will there is a rabbinic way applies to Supreme Court justices, too

Following a decision last week, the Supreme Court of the United States has made it nearly impossible to hold a lawyer liable for "Brady Violations", or failures by prosecuting attorneys to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence. The case involved a man who spent nearly two decades in jail after being railroaded by a team of attorneys who knew he was innocent, but did not know they were required to share that information with the other side. A lower court ruled that the municipality was liable for improperly training its employees, and that decision and the $14 million award that came with it was affirmed twice on appeal. Last week the Supremes tossed it out, ruling in a 5-4 decision that municipalities are not responsible for Brady violations committed by their employees. Because attorneys already enjoy immunity for their conduct as lawyers, last week's decision creates a catch-22: Brady Violations are still illegal, but when they occur neither the lawyers not their employers can be held responsible.

After I complained about this on twitter, someone attempted to defend that Court's decision by arguing that it was legitimately argued, rooted in existing case law and precedents, and therefore impossible to impugn on its merits. I am sure thats true, but it's also not the point.

The Supreme Court only hears the cases it wishes to hear, so we can presume it accepted this case for a reason. What was it? Unless you're prepared to argue that the court wanted to rescue a municipality from the injustice of paying $14 million to a man it had wrongly imprisoned, I think you're forced to say that the court agreed to hear this case because one or more of the justices saw it as an opportunity to undermine Brady. Though the naive among you might find it disturbing to think of the Supreme Court as a policy-making branch of government, I do not. I believe the justices on the Supreme Court, as a rule, seek to get desired policy outcomes via skillful manipulations and interpretations of the exiting laws and precedents. They accept the cases that facilitate this, and refuse the ones that do not. The court took this case, I believe, because the conservative wing wanted to make it next to impossible to hold a municipality responsible for Brady violations. Though the decision they wrote to achieve this goal may be legitimate and valid and impeccably argued as one GOP fan boy insists, the policy outcome itself is despicable.

Final sputters: If a municipality is responsible when someone falls after a janitor fails to put out a sign warning that the floor is wet, how can it be immune when one of it's lawyers railroads an innocent man? And if it is immune, what incentive does it have to properly train and supervise it's employees? As a result of this decision, more innocent men will be imprisoned. The court could have avoided this unhappy outcome by simply refusing to hear the case. Why take it, unless undermining Brady was your goal, and if undermining Brady is your goal, what the &$%# is wrong with you?

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