procedural due process

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.

 

 

 

 

The Supreme Court must take some delight in reversing the Fifth Circuit. In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has once again reversed the Fifth Circuit. In Johnson v. City of Shelby, No. 13-1318 (5th Cir. 11/10/2014), the Supreme Court found that the Fifth Circuit applied the recent decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), too rigorously. In Johnson, the Fifth Circuit had dismissed a civil rights claim for failure to plead the claim with adequate particularity. The Supreme Court found that the pleading was adequate regarding its legal theories of recovery. The Fifth Circuit, said the Supreme Court, had applied standards that were intended for factual pleadings to the legal statement of the cause of action.

Having informed the city of its factual basis, the plaintiff need do nothing more than “stave off threshold dismissal for want of adequate statement of their claim,” said the higher court. See the Supreme Court opinion here. See the pleading at issue here. Note that the Complaint does not even cite a particular statute regarding the theory of recovery. The Complaint refers to Title VII as basis for jurisdiction. But, the right of action could just as well include 42 U.S.C. §1983 or Title VII itself. Both statutes provide for protection from employment discrimination. The Complaint does discuss denial of procedural due process, suggesting the basis is intended to be §1983.

The higher court does explain that the federal rules do not countenance dismissal for imperfectly pleaded legal theories of the claim. The Supreme Court suggests the Fifth Circuit panel was “confused” by the Complaint. That is judge-speak for the Fifth Circuit panel mis-understood the Complaint. And, later in the brief opinion, the Supreme Court indicates the Fifth Circuit panel was too “punctilious” in dismissing this claim and should have allowed the plaintiff to amend his pleading. See Fifth Circuit opinion here.

The Supremes reached this result in a 9-0 per curium decision, indicating the Fifth Circuit’s opinion had little basis. It is strange that the appellate court did not allow amendment of the Complaint. The lower court granted summary judgment, apparently finding the claim should have been prosecuted under §1983. Instead, the plaintiffs had pressed their claim as a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. After losing the summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs asked to amend their complaint to specifically plead §1983. In short, the plaintiff asked for a re-start. The district court said no. The Fifth Circuit agreed.

And, among the warnings that citing §1983 is not a mere formality, justice was lost. The courts essentially allowed the two individual plaintiffs to suffer because their lawyer overlooked a formalistic requirement.

The City of San Antonio runs the city’s airport.  But, the Airport has its own police department.  Until 2009, the airport police department was separate from the San Antonio Police Department.  Airport Police Officer Russell Martin complained about Sgt. Orlandop Battles’ time entries.  In 2008, Officer Martin, a veteran of some 30 plus years in law enforcement, said Sgt. Battles was recording his time inaccurately.  Four days after his complaint, Officer Martin was assigned to work with Sgt. Battles.  A remarkable coincidence.  

Officer Martin asked to not work with Sgt. Battles.  He said working with him would result in "fiscticuffs or shooting."  The officer explained later that he meant the statement as a shock statement to get his supervisor’s attention, not as a threat.  The pairing was changed.  He would not work with Sgt. Battles.  Six months later, having forgotten about the statement, Officer Martin was told he would be terminated for making threats.  As a city employee, Officer Martin appealed the decision to a semi-independent board, the city’s civil commission.  The commission found in favor of the veteran officer, by a vote of 2-1.  But, the City Manager, Sheryl Sculley, overruled the commission’s finding.  She upheld the termination.  Officer Martin filed suit in state district court.  

A year and a half later, he amended his petition to add a federal claim based on 42 U.S.C. §1983.  Sec. 1983 requires that states and local governments provide basic procedural due process when terminating public employees.  The Plaintiff argued that when the City Manager overturned the civil commission’s finding, she did so without affording him a hearing.  She made a paper decision.  She did not first conduct her own hearing before reaching her decision. . 

Some four years after filing suit, the parties have now reached a settlement.  Gilbert Garcia, a San Antonio Express news columinst says it is the largest settlement by the city in recent memory, $225,000.  All because the City Manager ignored the recommendation of her own commission.  And, all because the airport police could not accept one veteran officer making fairly routine complaints about a co-worker.  See San Antonio Express News report here (requires an account).

According to the court’s file, the settlement was actually reached in late July.  It took some three months for the San Antonio City Council to finally address the settlement. The City Council will vote on the settlement the week of Oct. 1.  Settling with public entities takes longer, but the plaintiff does not need to fear the public entity will declare bankruptcy.  Mostly anyway….