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  • OT: Judicial Activism In Reverse

    Filed at 4:15 pm under by dcobranchi

    I’ve always said the real threat to our court system isn’t “judicial activism,” as the politicians would have you believe, but “judicial laziness.” The latter was caught in an unusual opinion issued on Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit:

    John Bright appeals the dismissal of his complaint. Bright’s claims arose when Charles Koschalk murdered one of Bright’s daughters, Annette. At the time of the murder, Koschalk was on probation after pleading guilty to corrupting the morals of Annette Bright’s sister. The District Court dismissed all of Bright’s claims. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and exercise plenary review over the District Court’s order.

    In his brief, Bright focused all of his argument, except for a single footnote, on the merits of the District Court opinion. That single footnote, however, raises a procedural impropriety underlying the District Court’s opinion that undermines the legitimacy of the dismissal order. The relevant footnote asserts that during a preliminary case conference, which occurred before the due date for or the filing of Bright’s response to the appellees’ motions to dismiss, the District Court indicated that it planned to dismiss Bright’s complaint on the basis of an unpublished District Court decision. At this conference, the District Court also requested that in lieu of a reply brief the appellees file a consolidated statement of position. The attorneys confirmed at oral argument that in response to the District Court’s request they submitted a proposed opinion and order of court, which the District Court adopted nearly verbatim, as its opinion and order. Therefore, Bright asserts that he is appealing an order supported by an opinion that were ghostwritten by appellees’ counsel.

    * * *

    Bright complains about the District Court’s procedure, stating that “[i]t is hard to reconcile this evident overreaching with plaintiff’s reasonable expectations as a litigant for a fair and independent judicial review of his claim.” We agree and will reverse and remand the cause to the District Court with orders to engage in an independent judicial review of Bright’s claims and the appellee’s motion to dismiss, and, should it again decide to dismiss, for it to prepare an opinion explaining the reasons for its order.

    Unfortunately, as district court dockets become more crowded, the temptation for judges to “cheat” and take shortcuts increases. Working in antitrust policy, I see this firsthand: The government will submit a “settlement” it coerced from a defendant to the district court, and the judge in turn will accept the government’s claims without question, despite a statutory duty to engage in independent oversight. The judge simply has too much on his plate to worry about an allegedly settled case.

    We have too many laws and not enough judges. Look at the Martha Stewart trial—whatever you thought of her or her alleged crime, was it really worth the time of a federal judge and courtroom staff to prosecute the case? Cases like that take time and resources away from potentially more important matters. Certainly John Bright’s wrongful death action deserved more attention from the district judge than it apparently received.

    On a lighter note, though, you have to wonder about a judge who’s lazier than the average college student. A freshman who plagiarizes his English paper usually shows enough initiative to not make his forgery blatantly obvious. The judge could have at least stolen another court’s opinion in a similar case off the Internet. Heck, most judges do that already—it’s called “citing precedent.”

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