Public discourse has taken a turn for the worse. Things are so bad that criticism of federal judges has become common place. Last week, Pres. Trump spoke about the Ninth Circuit in demeaning terms, clearly saying the Ninth Circuit attracts lawsuits against his policies and is likely to rule against him. A few days later, Roger Stone, a long-time adviser to Mr. Trump, posts a photo of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson with cross hairs in the background. He posts the photo on his Instagram account. He later deleted the photo.

Mr. Stone posted the picture the same day the judge issued a ruling against one of his motions, and a few days after the judge imposed a gag order on the political consultant. Mr. Stone and his lawyer submitted a filing apologizing for the incident. Mr. Stone claims a “volunteer” posted the photo. See Politico news report.

How does a person “accidentally” post a threatening picture of a judge? Indeed, why would a person deliberately antagonize a judge who will decide your future? I suspect Mr. Stone sees this as strategy, as a way to provoke the judge into making a mistake. Or, perhaps it is just his nature to poke the bear. Regardless, we can be certain his lawyer did not recommend posting any picture of the judge for any reason.

The President has been attacking federal judges for years. It started when Pres. Trump started attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Paul Curiel in 2016, saying the “Mexican” judge could not be impartial regardingTrump University. Later, the same judge heard arguments regarding environmental restrictions in regard to the wall. The President atacked Judge Curiel, not once, not twice, but several times at his rallies. Eventually, the judge did indeed allow the environmental restrictions to be lifted for the precious wall. But, the President did not apologize. Neither dd he ever mention that Judge Curiel was born in Indiana, not in Mexico.

As we said in the Army, it all starts with the guy at the top.

The recent government shutdown can have a profound impact on federal workers. Research by management experts shows that the threat of imminent uncertainty, such as furlough or layoff, can be just as stressful as the furlough or layoff itself. A management professor at West Chester University, Anthony Wheeler, says psychologically, they are the same, the threat to one’s sense of security is the same. The more often the worker hears the threat, such as Presidential tweets, the greater the stress.

The studies looked at furloughs of state employees and layoffs of nurses before and after  hospital mergers. The studies found that high performers who had options would leave for other jobs elsewhere. And, they tend to leave quickly.

Another professor, Lisa Baranik at the University of Albany in New York, studied the 13 day shutdown in 2013. For up to five weeks after the shutdown ends, the effects lingered among the workers. Furloughs, she explained, are about much more than financial considerations. For most workers, the job is also a source of social interaction. They can discuss families and positive accomplishments at work. When they lose those bonds, they lose much of the positive effects of the job. Those positive effects take time to re-build.

Some folks suggest that the effect on federal workers is different, because they tend to have more of a sense of mission. They serve a cause, something larger than themselves. But, said one expert, this most recent shutdown and the threat of a second shutdown soon afterward makes this experience much more like layoffs in the private sector. See the Feb. 12, 201 edition of the San Antonio Express News for more information about these studies.

I used to get referrals from the San Antonio Bar Association. These referrals included many clients who had never spoken to a lawyer anywhere. Many of them would call complaining basically about unfair treatment. I still get calls like that, sometimes. They might say, “my employer fired me because they say I did not call in, but I did call in sick.” I have to explain to such potential clients that in Texas, an employer can fire you for the wrong reason or even for a stupid reason.

We have what is known as “at-will” employment. An employer can fire you for any reason (other than various types of discrimination). Just as the employee can quit for any reason. So, yes, even when the employer is wrong, even when you did call in sick and the employer just flat messed up and did not record your call, they can still fire you. I wish that was not true. I wish our state laws were different, that they required some sort of “just cause” for termination. But, most states do not require just cause for a termination. Only some 10 states require a good reason for a termination. In the rest of the states, such as Texas, an employer can fire you for the wrong reason.

Clients and potential clients often ask me at some point what is the value of his/her case? What little they know of its value is colored by the ubiquitous Personal Injury lawyer ads. Or, sometimes, their knowledge is influenced by what some brother-in-law knows, or thinks he knows. So, some clients, a small percentage, expect wealth and riches.

Employment cases are not car wreck cases. The employment discrimination statutes provide for specific types of damages. Title VII and the Texas law equivalent, Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, provide for lost pay and benefits, compensatory damages, punitive damages and costs of prosecuting the lawsuit which includes attorney’s fees. There is nothing more. There is not, for example, such a thing as an award for the value of the home you lost or the divorce the job loss caused. Those sorts of losses do help show emotional suffering. But, no, there will be no dollar for dollar award regarding a lost home. I wish there were. The judge cannot award anything not allowed by statute.

Lost pay and benefits include more than may meet the eye. It includes lost pay of course. It includes all lost benefits. So, save that COBRA letter that records the dollar amount paid by the employer for your medical insurance. You need a record of what the employer paid for your insurance, not for what you paid.

Lost benefits include retirement benefits. Terminations involve different calculations than failure to promote. Lost promotions or raises can affect how much a 401K would grow. Some workers can “guesstimate” how much their retirement would have grown if they had received a particular step increase. If the client cannot make an estimate, then an economist may be necessary.

Lost bonuses count. Of course, the employer will claim bonuses are never guaranteed. They may even point to policies which provide bonuses are never certain and depend on financial success each fiscal year. But, if the actual practice suggests that bonuses are likely and that failure to pay a bonus may have been motivated by discriminatory animus, then there will be a fact issue regarding bonuses. If there is a factual issue, then the issue should be be decided by a judge or jury.

Arriving at an amount for compensatory damages is complicated. Compensatory damages describes damages intended to compensate a person for emotional suffering. There is no simple way to measure emotional suffering. The actual amount to be awarded is up to a jury. Most juries do not award anything for emotional suffering.

Punitive damages are even more rare than emotional suffering type damages.

Of course, all these amounts are subject to caps. Title VII and the the TCHR Act are capped at various levels based on number of employees. The highest cap is $300,000. So, even the largest employer in the country will never see a larger award than $300,000 in compensatory damages.

Once in a blue moon, we might see a jury award a million dollars for compensatory damages. But, that amount will be reduced by a judge to the appropriate cap level.

But, no matter how small, surely it is better that an errant employer pay something for violating the law and causing so much harm.

In a Harris Poll survey a few years ago, researchers found that 20% of hiring managers have asked unlawful questions in interviews. They asked these unlawful questions not realizing at the time that such questions could lead to legal liability. CareerBuilder commissioned the survey. A CareerBuilder representative said an interviewee who is asked these sorts of questions could decline to answer. If the hiring manager insisted on an answer, then that insistence suggests this might not be a good place to work. Those questions include:

  • What is your political affiliation?
  • What is your race, color, or ethnicity?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you disabled?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children or plan to?
  • Are you in debt?
  • Do you social drink or smoke?

Some of these questions are clearly unlawful. But, I do not see a legal problem in asking someone if s/he smokes or drinks. And, just to remind my readers, these questions only become an issue if some adverse personnel actions develops later for which there is no good, objective rationale. The best defense to a lawsuit or complaint remains simple: document problems and base that documentation on objective reasons.

It is extremely rare for a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court to fuss at the President. Yet, that is what Chief Justice Roberts has done. Pres. Trump complained that an “Obama judge” ruled against him. The next day, Chief Justice Roberts said we do not have Obama judges, Bush judges, or Clinton judges. Instead, we have an independent judiciary for which we should all be thankful.  The Chief Justice was trying to tell the President that these frequent attacks on judges makes it harder for judges to remain independent. But, the same day, the President responded, indicating he was not impressed by the Chief’s comment. See CBS news report here.   

It is not unusual for litigants to a lawsuit to complain at the end of an unsuccessful trial that they lost due to the judge. But, for the President to say that is very irresponsible. An important element of democracy is the rule of law. The rule of law replaced the rule of men centuries ago. Perhaps, every few generations, we have to re-learn that lesson.

There are some fundamental requirements in United States jurisprudence. There are some things we just do not do as a matter of fundamental due process. One of those things we do not do is ask minors to make important legal decisions. Yet, that is exactly the slippery slope upon which the Trump administration has embarked. A five year old Honduran who as seeking asylum was separated from her grandmother. She was then asked to sign away her right to a bond hearing. The ABA Bar Journal is relying on a New Yorker magazine article for the story.

Helen arrived in Texas with her grandmother, Noehmi and her teenage uncle, Christian in July. The Trump administration had supposedly ended the practice of separating children from their families weeks before Helen arrived. Yet, Helen was separated from her family.

All immigrants have the right to a hearing to determine whether they are entitled to bond. If the court finds they are likely to appear for their hearing, then the court allows them to post bond and go free until his/her hearing. Little Helen checked the box indicating she wanted a bond hearing. Later, someone handed her a form, with adult language and in English, asking if she wanted to waive her right to a bond hearing. The form was checked that she wished to withdraw her request for a bond hearing. Her signature appeared in typical kindergarten scrawl, just one word, “Helen.” There was no last name.

In Texas, the age at which one may enter into a contract is 18. But, in reality, many businesses require an older age, 21. My son cannot rent a car in his own name until he turns 21. Five years old is definitely below the minimum.

The age of consent affects countless areas of law, everything from marriage, to a driver’s license to voting. It is, or was, a fundamental precept of American law. See the ABA Bar Journal report here.

Later, Noehmi and Christian were re-united. But, at the hearing, the immigration judge and the Department of Homeland Defense lawyer did not appear to realize Helen existed. The lawyer for Noehmi and Christian tracked down Helen and found her. Helen was returned to her family on Sept. 10, 2018. But, now, she is afraid to go to sleep at night for fear her family will leave her in the night.

We often hear about the Magna Carta and how that great document eventually led to our Declaration of Independence. But, what was the Magna Carta all about? In 2015, San Antonio’s own Prof. Vincent R.  Johnson at St. Mary’s Law School wrote a nice piece about the Magna Carta. He explained in his article what was so new and ground-breaking about the “Great Charter.”

One of the problems with the Magna Carta, he explains, is that it is not organized by topics. One must study the whole document to understand it.

One of the first topics Prof. Johnson mentions is due process. The bad King John would frequently take action “by force of arms against recalcitrants as though assured of their guilt, without waiting for legal procedure.” In some cases, noblemen were deprived of their estates not by their peers, but entirely by Crown nominees. So, Clause 39 states: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” Without due process, nothing else matters. No right can be protected without due process. This clause ensured the king could not seize property aided and abetted by his cronies.

Today, we often cite the Magna Carta as the basis for trial by jury. Prof. Johnson explains that some historians disagree. Clause 39 refers to judgment by one’s equal peers. But, one historian says the “judgment” refers to the initial decision regarding how trial would be conducted. The jury of peers would decide whether trial would be by ordeal, by hot iron or by water, compurgation, wager of law, trial by battle, or production of charter. Judgment, according to this view, did not refer to the final decision, but to the method to reach that final decision. The men of the time believed that God would render the final decision after one of these trial methods.

“Compurgation” refers to the medieval practice of of allowing the accused to swear an oath regarding his innocence. The accused would then need an oath from a certain number, often 12, other persons saying they believed the oath of the accused person.

But, added the professor, regarding a dispute between then King John and King Alexander of Scotland, the Magna Carta provided that a dispute over hostages should be resolved by judgment of his equals in “our court.” So, at least when trial by combat or by ordeal was not possible, the signers of the Magna Carta believed that trial by peers was the solution. So, suggests Prof. Johnson, some portions of the Carta did indeed refer to the trial itself, not simply the means by which trial would be conducted.

Clause 39 also presented a new form of evidence. It required that in the future, no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement. He must produce credible witnesses to support his own “official” assertion. Officials at the time were generally lords. So, this clause removed from the lords the power to imprison a common man simply on his own, unsupported word.

A well-known provision, Clause 40 provides simply, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” In a time when the Catholic Church would routinely “sell” dispensations, many judges were bribed to rule one way or the other. This provision set a new standard, by which justice was (mostly) not for sale. We take judicial independence for granted today, but once, that was not so.

Clause 36: “In [the] future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs.” The writ of inquisition allowed a criminal defendant to avoid or delay trial – which was often trial by combat. Some call trial by combat “legalized private revenge,” because the accuser could exact the combat. The writ of inquisition involved a procedure in which one’s neighbors could could exonerate a defendant. The writ, however, was used as a revenue device by King John and was sold only to those with deep pockets. Making this writ freely available decreased the numbers of trials by combat.

The Magna Carta addressed proportionality in sentencing. Clause 20  provided. “For a trivial offense, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offense, and for a serious offense correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein (a feudal tenant) the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy  of a royal court . . . ” The goal was to not reduce a criminal to beggary. There were similar provisions for earls, barons and clergy. The concept, which was new at the time, was to make punishment “fit the crime.” We see this concern still resonating on our modern time when some seek reforms regarding bail. Bail for misdemeanors often result sin persons staying in jail for months before they see a trial.

Widows could be married to any man willing to pay the going rate. The payment would be made to the widow’s feudal overlord. But, some widows were wealthy enough to outbid suitors and buy a charter guaranteeing she would not have to remarry. King John did a fruitful business in selling these charters to women who wished to marry their own choice, or not remarry at all. Clause 8 provides, “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without consent of whatever the lord she may hold them of.” This provision created new legal rights for women. This was not true freedom, but it was a step.

Clause 1 was addressed “TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM.” Clearly, the rights in the Magna Carta were guaranteed to all free men, meaning not to vassals and the like. Clause 40, which guaranteed access to justice, was not limited to free men. It simply said “to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” So, Clause 40 was much broader in scope than just the free men. And, Clause 60 asked that regarding all these rights, “let men of our kingdom . . . observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.” Clause 60 then expressed the hope that these rights would be extended by the free men to to those not free.

The treatment of debtors was addressed. Clause 9 provided that the King would not seize any land or or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor had movable goods with which to pay the debt. That means the creditor could not seize land when smaller goods would suffice to pay the debt. That provision provided some protection in an agrarian society, so the debtor could still earn a living.

The Magna Carta was not a perfect document. But, it was ahead of its time. The protections afforded the common free man far surpassed that found in other countries of the time. It was to these protections that the Founding Fathers looked in 1776.

As I have mentioned here before, I served 12 months in Iraq during the Iraq war. It was one of the most wonderful experience of my life – except when it was not! ….   Seriously, it was a searing and very positive sort of experience, overall. The big fear in the war was the IED’s, also known as roadside bombs. A large IED, and by the time I was there in 2005-2006, most IED’s were large – a large IED would obliterate a HMMWV. One sailor, a Navy SEAL, Dan Crenshaw, lost an eye to an IED. He probably lost more than that, but not that he can discuss.

I knew a few soldiers who drove through IED’s and lived to tell the tale. Even when you live, the IED does things to your brain. There is something about the concussion effect on the brain in a close confined space, lined with armor, that harms your brain. Doubtless, Dan Crenshaw suffers other, unseen effects. Mr. Crenshaw is running for Congress as a Republican in Texas.

So, when Pete Davidson makes a joke about his eye patch and comments, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever…..  whatever,” I do not get the joke. In fact, I find his comment pretty offensive. See CBS news report. I like SNL fine. But, jokes about losing body parts to an IED just are not funny to me.

I knew a soldier, a National Guardsman who went outside the wire often. It was his job to leave the relatively safe confines of the FOB several times a week. He drove through a couple of IED’s. He said the ringing in hs ears would last for days afterward. He wrote the name of all the soldiers his unit lost on his helmet. He wanted to remember them.

Pete Davidson lost his father in the 9/11 attack. He should understand “sacrifice,” we would think. Losing a dad who was a fire fighter is similar to sacrificing in a war zone.

A female comrade was a truck driver in Baghdad. They were told the terrorists were using kids to stop convoys. “Do not stop to help kids!” she was told. If she stops, the entire convoy has to stop. When you stop, you get attacked. She did not stop for kids. Years later, she was still dealing with deep PTSD because she might have run over a child.

A young soldier was in a Reserve unit. He thought he got out of the Reserves. He should have been, but was not processed out. About a year after he thought he was out of his Reserve unit, he received a phone call, “Chin, get over here in 30 minutes, or you will be court-martialed!” Chin did get there in 30 minutes, barefoot and without a shirt. Chin served his 12 months in Iraq and never complained.

Another major went home on his six month break. He found his wife was dating someone. That someone was reading bedtime stories to his children. That major came back after his break and did his second six months, knowing he would need a divorce lawyer when he got back home. Yet, that same major had to make major decisions, like who leads the convoy when his unit has to travel 2-3 hours in pitch black darkness with no headlights, or who mans the turret gun in his vehicle when the main guy is hurt. He has to focus, or people get hurt. There is no time for self-pity.

I am sure Pete Davidson faced some huge emotional issues in losing his father. You have to respect his experience. But, that does not give him space to minimize the service and sacrifice of others. None of these war experiences deserve a “whatever.” Neither does a sailor who lost his eye.

In civil lawsuits, we do these things known as “depositions.” We depose a witness with no judge present. The depositions usually occur in lawyer’s offices, but they can take place anywhere. The two warring sides meet up and the only brake on poor behavior are social norms. In a deposition in Las Vegas, a lawyer was deposing the person who had accused him of defamation. The lawyer, James Pengilly, was sued for defamation. Mr. Pengilly represented himself in the lawsuit. He was deposing the person who had filed the lawsuit. He used various vulgar terms, interrupted the witness and his attorney, made inappropriate statements and was generally aggressive.

Then, apparently not liking an answer by the witness, he move this hand near a pistol he wore on his belt and asked the witness if he was “ready for it.” The witness left the room. When he returned, Mr. Pengilly displayed his weapon to the witness and the opposing attorney. The two were frightened by this odd conduct and called the police.

The Nevada Supreme Court has suspended Mr. Pengilly. It said there was serious risk of harm to all who were present. Interviewed by the local newspaper, Mr. Pengilly said he always carried a weapon, because his father had worked at a law firm in San Fransisco where a gunman killed eight people. He has the pistol with him everyday, he explained. “I always carry a gun because I’m attorney and people don’t like me.” See ABA Bar Journal news report. I suppose they don’t…….