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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Second Circuit Chief Judge Jacobs' dissent in Husain v. Springer: An opinion worth occupying the minds of people with consequential things to do, albeit arising from an appeal that otherwise shouldn't

First, a long war story. You can skip it (jump down to the first line of centered asterisks) without much consequence to your understanding of the rest of my post, if you'd rather.

In August 1980, during the first week of my year-long judicial clerkship, the United States Circuit Judge who'd hired me was hearing oral arguments at the Fifth Circuit's headquarters in New Orleans. I'd been told to report to her chambers in Houston, though, where a pair of her departing clerks would show me the ropes and get me started. Before the end of the first day, I was up to my elbows in a "screener" — a thin file pulled from the top of a stack of similarly thin files, all of which represented cases in which the staff lawyers from New Orleans had made an initial determination that the appeal could probably be disposed of as part of the Fifth Circuit's "summary calendar," without oral argument. Any judge could bounce a "screener" to the oral argument calendar, and that sometimes happened. But the staff lawyers, who in general had less responsibility than us law clerks but who didn't rotate out every year, had a good feel for the pulse of the then-massive circuit's caseload (appeals from six states, being handled by twenty-five circuit judges). My outgoing co-clerk, whom I'd worked with a year earlier when he was an editor and I was a member of the Texas Law Review, was indulging in a reasonable assumption that whatever he took off that stack to give to me would be a fairly simple case by Fifth Circuit standards, and thus a good way to get my feet wet in a new job.

Seven days and eighty hours later, I'd finished my forty-something page opus that comprehensively reviewed, and then reconciled into a definitive decision matrix, the existing Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit precedent on how to treat qualified immunity defenses to section 1983 and Bivens civil rights claims for purposes of summary judgment consideration. My co-clerk skimmed it, and then rolled his eyes. "She's going to think you're a total dork," he warned me. And he was right: she did, and I was.

The problem was that, in fact, the Fifth Circuit's caselaw (like most circuits') on those subjects was riddled with seeming contradictions back then. The boom in these sorts of cases was still pretty new, but there were already a lot of sloppy opinions out there. Indeed, the staff law clerk who'd marked this case as a "screener" had followed one trail of cases, but he or she had completely ignored a couple of competing trails that were arguably just as applicable and just as valid. The poor district judge and his law clerks had more or less shot up a flare-gun pleading for guidance. And with the absolute confidence that every newly graduated law review editor has — which is to say, the absolute confidence that he or she can discern every interesting cross-current in the law, and then write some dozens of pages of dense, heavily footnoted prose to re-channel them properly — I'd set about to "fix things."

My judge not only rolled her eyes, but audibly groaned when I handed her my work. "Opinions from screeners aren't supposed to look like this," she said. She hefted the manuscript, waggling it in the air between her thumb and index finger. "They ought not weigh this much, literally. Are you sure this couldn't be handled in about a fifth the space?"

I insisted that it could not, and so she read it. Then she started pulling books off the shelf to track through some of the precedential trails I'd laid out in opposition to one another. She moved from eye-rolls to more groans, with occasional sotto voce mutterings; but now it was the other cases she was frustrated with, not my draft opinion. Then we argued about my draft some more, and flagged some weak language, and started testing various hypotheticals against my (mostly procedural) decision matrix. This all took the better part of a day.

"Well," she finally concluded, "I think you're actually right. This is just tough sledding, and the district courts, who are seeing more of these cases every year, probably do need a road-map from us. This might even be the case to do it in. But you just can't make this much law with a screener. It's just not done. I've only been on the bench for a year, but even I know that." She sighed again. "I'm going to make a few revisions based on what we've looked at together, and then run this past the other two judges on our screening panel," she said, "just to ask them if I ought to send your draft opinion along with the file when the case gets bounced to a new panel on the oral argument calendar. I'd hate to see this much work go completely to waste."

I felt duly chastised and downcast.

The other two judges on the panel, however, had a different reaction. They also thought that the draft opinion — which was now genuinely a joint product of our chambers — had done about as good a job as could be done in reconciling the prior cases (short of the freedom to simply overrule prior precedent that only the SCOTUS or the full Fifth Circuit sitting en banc would have). But the gist of their further reaction was that while the precedents in this area were in an ugly mess, this screening panel was nevertheless as well-equipped to sort it all out as any oral argument panel would be. Moreover, not only our chambers, but now also the other two screening panel judges and their staffs had invested a lot of time in the case. All that would mostly be wasted if any of the three judges booted it to a random oral argument calendar panel. And they also pointed out that one of the parties was proceeding pro se; if the case went to the oral argument calendar, only one side would show up to argue through counsel, and we were already highly confident what that side's counsel would say.

There was some more very civil discussion back-and-forth between chambers over the substance and language of the opinion. But thus it was that the very first Fifth Circuit opinion I ever helped write clocked in at 27 pages as published in the Federal Reporter, Second Series, with 34 headnotes (but a mere 27 footnotes) — and with a partial dissent written by one of the circuit's most senior and respected judges. The first footnote read:

No party in this case requested oral argument, and no judge on the summary calendar panel determined that oral argument was necessary. In these circumstances, Fifth Circuit Local Rules 13.6.4 and 18.2 allow us to decide this case without oral argument, despite the fact that one member of the panel concurs in part and dissents in part.

I was, at least in part, redeemed. "But next time," my judge told me, "come get my specific okay before you invest 80 hours in a screener. Any screener. Okay, buster?"

(All the dialog in this war story is based on a loose paraphrase of my dim recollections — except that one word, "buster," which I'm pretty sure is an exact quote. Just another reason that clerkship was the best job I ever had, bar none.)


Fast-forward twenty-six years — during which period there have been lots and lots of circuit court published opinions on how one goes about evaluating qualified immunity defenses to section 1983 and Bivens claims in a summary judgment context. That's not to say that all of those reported cases are entirely consistent, or that applying all this vast body of case-law is a no-brainer for the lawyers and the judges at the trial court level. But no one can plausibly say, "We need a basic road map for how to handle these cases" anymore. Every circuit has long since been there and done that, many times.

Moreover, while some of the cases brought to the federal courts under the rubric of "Defending Our First Amendment Rights!" or "Vindicating the Rule of Law Under Our Constitution!" are genuinely important, a great many of them aren't worth the powder it would take to blow them to hell. We saw the Supreme Court tie itself in knots trying to decide during the Term just past, for example, whether the First Amendment was or wasn't violated when a school principal disciplined a high school student for displaying his "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner. The case was almost forced upon them by the Ninth Circuit, who'd concluded that the First Amendment might die tomorrow unless such banners are given constitutional protection by the federal courts. But it was still an eminently silly case.

Second Circuit Chief Judge Dennis G. Jacobs This summer, however, Chief Judge Dennis G. Jacobs of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit — a Bush-41 appointee who'd been in private practice for a couple of decades before he was appointed in 1992 — found himself confronted with yet another footnote filled, forty-something paged manuscript, with yet another carefully nuanced treatise on the application of fine principles of constitutional law. Given his tenure, I'm sure he's participated in thousands of appellate decisions before, probably including dozens of appeals that turned on qualified immunity defenses. Some of them were probably important, and the next one that wanders up the appellate chain might be too.

But this latest one, Husain v. Springer, announced on Friday the 13th, just isn't. Instead, it's an over-lawyered pissing match — I'm sorry, I know that's a crude term, but there's no term so apt — over whether there were genuine issues of fact with respect to a qualified immunity defense asserted by a college president who'd ordered a re-run, one week later, of an arguably flawed (i.e., college rule-breaking) 1997 campus election at a Staten Island community college. The alleged harm? In the following year, a "chilled" student editorial board "decided to give their endorsement of the PSA [one slate of student candidates] less prominence than the newspaper’s endorsement of the Student Union slate [another slate of student candidates] had received in Spring 1997." (The editors indulged in this paranoid fantasy despite the fact that this same college president had overruled members of her own staff to ensure that their publication was not impounded, but instead released on the timetable they wanted, and even though the same 37 candidates whom the editors had endorsed for the original election also won in the rescheduled election a week later.) The college never restricted what the editors wrote, nor punished them afterwards for writing it. None of the candidates sued (or had reason to).

"She skeered us," was the student editors' basic claim, "even though she didn't actually do nuthin' to us." (Someone from the northeast will have to translate that into an appropriate Staten Island slacker dialect for me.)

The district court, after extended proceedings and with a thorough written opinion, had granted summary judgment denying any relief. The students, represented (probably pro bono, but possibly with an opportunity to recover legal fees) by a prominent national mega-firm (Akin Gump), appealed. But two judges on the Second Circuit panel — via a 44-page written opinion of U.S. Circuit Judge (and surprise! Clinton nominee! and double surprise! famous Yale Law School Professor Emeritus) Guido Calabresi — reversed in part and remanded for a full jury trial on the merits.


Friends and neighbors, I now give you the vivid prose of Chief Judge Jacobs — a man who is clearly tired of suffering fools gladly, and who is keenly aware that, as the chief judge of one of our nation's most important courts, he certainly has better things to do than to referee every grab and every fall from a college newspaper's 10-year-old self-important opinions about imaginary consequences from a wrestling match student government election from a Staten Island community college (citation omitted):

This is a case about nothing. Injunctive relief from the school’s election rules is now moot (if it was ever viable); and plaintiffs’ counsel conceded at oral argument that the only relief sought in this litigation is nominal damages. Now, after years of litigation over two dollars, the majority will impose on a busy judge to conduct a trial on this silly thing, and require a panel of jurors to set aside their more important duties of family and business in order to decide it.

With due respect to my colleagues in the majority, and to whatever compulsion they feel to expend substantial energies on this case, I fear that the majority opinion (44 pages of typescript) will only feed the plaintiffs’ fantasy of oppression: that plutocrats are trying to stifle an upsurge of Pol-Potism on Staten Island. Contrary to the impression created by the majority’s lengthy formal opinion, this case is not a cause célèbre; it is a slow-motion tantrum by children spending their graduate years trying to humiliate the school that conferred on them a costly education from which they evidently derived small benefit.


So who finds this dissent shocking?

Other present or former law professors like Judge Calabresi, I guess — including Profs. Eugene Volokh and Orin Kerr over at the Volokh Conspiracy. But they're not shocked because of Chief Judge Jacobs' characterization of the lack of merits to the student-plaintiffs' case. (Indeed, in a separate post, Prof. Volokh writes that the majority's opinion was "quite odd" and that he's "unaware of any First Amendment case that remotely reaches this sort of 'chill[ing of] speech'; and such behavior by the government seems quite far from the sort of government actions that the law has recognized as triggering the First Amendment." In other words, he suspects that Judge Calabresi is wrong on the merits.) Rather, these fine law professors are shocked by this (deliberately understated) admission from Chief Judge Jacobs at the beginning of his partial dissent:

I concede that this short opinion of mine does not consider or take into account the majority opinion. So I should disclose at the outset that I have not read it. I suppose this is unusual, so I explain why.

I must digress a moment. If you read my blog regularly, you may fall prey to what I think might be called a "sampling error" bias. I hardly ever write about blog posts by law professors with whom I agree. And you might therefore stop taking me seriously when I insist that I like and admire and respect the law professors about whose posts I do write from time to time. I'm not being coy or disingenuous. I probably read 50 posts by Eugene Volokh or Orin Kerr that I wholeheartedly and unreservedly agree with for every one with which I disagree.

But this is one of those times when I fear they're both suffering that sort of academic-induced narcosis that leaves them just flat out of touch with the real world. That real world includes full-time practicing lawyers, and full-time trial and appellate judges (but not necessarily their clerks), most of whom would treat this case as a tempest in a teapot, which is exactly what Chief Judge Jacobs has done here.


Actually, however, I do agree that Chief Judge Jacobs' absolute refusal to even read Judge Calabresi's majority opinion is shocking. In fact, I'm quite sure that Chief Judge Jacobs intended for it to be provocative. He's pretty much saying, "I refuse to even read what my fellow judge has written about this appeal" — and well, that's indeed extraordinary. It's likely to generate controversy, with the effects of that controversy creating their own time demands, all of which is likely to become entirely disproportionate to the fifteen or twenty minutes Chief Judge Jacobs has saved for his schedule by ash-canning Judge Calabresi's majority opinion..

U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi Prof. Volokh and Prof. Kerr and various of their commenters were definitely provoked, but nevertheless seem to have missed Chief Judge Jacobs' point entirely. They seem to think this is equivalent to a judicial abdication by Chief Judge Jacobs, or to the doing by him of a deliberate injustice. "It's too bad that the dissenting judge didn't take the case more seriously," writes Prof. Volokh, because "I think the majority opinion may well be wrong, and certainly sets an important precedent that would benefit from serious, skeptical scrutiny."

Meh. I agree that Judge Calabresi's opinion is wrong, but it looks to me like the majority opinion pretty much turns on the interpretation of City University of New York Bylaw § 15.2(d), on the subjective wobblies claimed by a bunch of student editors over a weird, probably unique set of actions by the college administration, and on the theoretical clarity (or lack thereof) of federal precedents on First Amendment free expression in a university setting as of a specific date in the late 1990s (since that's what the university president's "good faith," and therefore her potential liability, must be measured against, incredibly enough). That's not quite a blockbuster in terms of its precedential effect on other cases, regardless of whether Judge Calabresi's opinion got it exactly right or not quite right or mostly wrong.

More to the point, I disagree with Prof. Volokh's assertion that Chief Judge Jacobs' opinion doesn't take the case seriously. The professoriat may want Chief Judge Jacobs to say, "This appeal isn't worth my time, or any federal appellate judge's time, but nevertheless, here's exactly what I would say if it were worth my time" — and then to either fly-speck every debatable point in Judge Calabresi's opinion or else to concur in it. But he can't do the latter without contradicting the former, and it's the former point which he clearly thinks is more important here.

Chief Judge Jacobs certainly makes it very clear that the district judge got it more than adequately right, such that neither he nor his colleagues needed to write any more about this case. But his far more important point is that the whole damned case isn't worth the paper it will take to print Judge Calabresi's opinion on — much less the tens of thousands of dollars of additional legal fees that will almost certainly be sought, and possibly awarded (at the expense of the taxpayers of New York state) if the students win after a full trial on remand.

Chief Judge Jacobs carefully avoided directly faulting his brethren. But his deliberately provocative conduct was an indictment of more than just their majority opinion in this case — and of more than just the appellants in this case. Indeed, he might have quoted Churchill by writing: "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put!" Or he might have used the phrase "De minimis non curat lex," which I believe translates from Latin into "Get the hell out of my courtroom with that noise, you idiot!" (I'm not sure of the declinations on that translation, but it's a good enough rough approximation.)

This was, in effect, a judicial rallying cry — to district judges, to other circuit judges, even perhaps to SCOTUS justices. And it's a warning — not quite "Who dares disturb the great and powerful Oz?" but definitely something that ought to be heeded by litigants whose claims are, shall we say, lacking in anything but contrived and feigned real-world importance.

Note, however, that Chief Judge Jacobs didn't refuse to do his duty as a federal appellate judge. He presumably read the briefs and the trial court record. He attended oral argument. He participated in the post-argument conference(s). We don't know what, if any, unpublished communications were exchanged between him, Judge Calabresi, and the remaining judge on the panel, (former Second Circuit Chief) Judge John M. Walker, Jr. But these opinions aren't published until every judge on the panel is ready for them to be published based on having finished what he wanted to say to his brethren, whether face to face, on the phone, or in writing. It would have been improper for any of the judges to reverse the district judge based on arguments that hadn't been made in the district court and in the appellate briefs, so Chief Judge Jacobs necessarily had a pretty good idea of what Judge Calabresi's opinion could have said, had he taken the time to parse it. He cast his own vote. And his "admission" aside, it would indeed not surprise me if he skimmed it, and/or had a clerk read it closely — which is to say, he may purposefully have avoided quote-unquote "reading" it precisely so that he could make his rhetorical point as forcefully as possible.

I'm sure Profs. Volokh and Kerr would agree that appellate judges very commonly write dissents along the lines of, "For the reasons stated in the district court's opinion, I would not have reached the merits of the substantive First Amendment issues, and would instead have affirmed on the basis of that opinion's treatment of the qualified immunity issues." Chief Judge Jacobs actually did way more than that, and went through a brief discussion of why he believes the muddled state of First Amendment precedent as of 1997, when the university professor did her supposedly dastardly chilling, should have made it impossible for her to be found liable for a bad-faith violation of the students' rights.

Nevertheless, as Chief Judge Jacobs viewed it, in the circumstances of this case, his duty obliged him to resist the institutional inertia and the demands of silly plaintiff-appellants like these that he give their appeal more time than it possibly deserved. You don't win a pissing match by whirling about, adding your own piss stream to the mix, and then insisting that you're not getting as wet as the others, nor by admitting that you're wet while writing at length about how nice it would be if you were dry and how much you wish the other fellows would stop pissing. The only way to "win" a pissing match is just to jump the hell out of the spray. Only then does it make sense to comment on what you've just gotten out of. And that's what Chief Judge Jacobs did.

And the place he chose to draw the line was in reading yet another 40+ page manuscript, of the sort turned out year after year by, yes, law clerks just like the one I was in 1980-1981. Such a long opinion was barely defensible, and mostly regrettable, even back then. It's simply indefensible now, and from down here in the real world, I applaud Chief Judge Jacobs for saying so — even at the cost of what may have been some "collegiality" with his brethren.


UPDATE (Sat Jul 14 @ wee small hours): Prof. Bainbridge and I are in substantial accord, and both join in Chief Judge Jacobs' dissent, with due respect to Prof. Bainbridge's colleague Prof. Volokh. Ted Frank on Overlawyered cites Prof. B and Chief Judge Jacobs with approval, but he's pretty low-keyed in his mockery. Ted quotes another paragraph from the dissent that contains a phrase with a deliciously studied ambiguity (emphasis mine):

This prolonged litigation has already cost the school a lot of money that could better have been spent to enrich course offerings or expand student day-care. If this case ends with a verdict for plaintiffs (anything is possible with a jury), the district court will have the opportunity to consider whether the exercise merits an award of attorneys’ fees in excess of one-third of two dollars.

And see also Above the Law, whose headline notes that Chief Judge Jacobs is obviously "not running for student body president," and whose text aptly urges you to read Chief Judge Jacobs' entire opinion so that you may "absorb the entire spectacle of a full-blown student government p*ssing match in which the stakes could hardly be lower." The comments there are pretty funny too.


UPDATE (Sun Jul 15 @ 8:00pm): Prof. Althouse has a short post up about the dissent, but doesn't seem to me to either directly approve or disapprove of it. I've also put up a new post in response to a comment below from my friend Patterico.

Posted by Beldar at 01:16 AM in Law (2007), Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Second Circuit Chief Judge Jacobs' dissent in Husain v. Springer: An opinion worth occupying the minds of people with consequential things to do, albeit arising from an appeal that otherwise shouldn't and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Beldar's answer to Patterico's question about Husain v. Springer from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Jul 15, 2007 7:56:12 PM


(1) Mark L made the following comment | Jul 14, 2007 7:54:37 AM | Permalink

This is why, although I deeply respect lawyers, I could never become one.

(2) James Joyner made the following comment | Jul 14, 2007 8:48:41 AM | Permalink

Having read a fair number of your blog posts, I'm not at all surprised that your research summary turned into a forty-something page opus.

(3) anduril made the following comment | Jul 14, 2007 8:03:00 PM | Permalink

Dittoes, James Joyner. Question: is anyone shocked that the Chief Judge of one of the most important courts in the nation thinks said wrote: "anything is possible with a jury"? I find that as refreshing as just about anything else he wrote.

(4) Carol Herman made the following comment | Jul 14, 2007 8:04:48 PM | Permalink

What I know about the law you can put in a paperbag. But to be able, in 1980, to be dealing with 1982 BEVINS, means someone was even ahead of what was coming down the pike.

As to the lunacy in the law, and the ability to cull through packs of humans in order to find just those who'll agree with prosecutors, without the slightest of clues that they may be wrong ...

Has only jeopardized this country even further.

Given that CAPITALISM needs the room for some to make obscene amounts of cash ... How did Conrad Black get to be tossed in the hoosegow?

And, why think driving conglomerates away from the USA, is on par with sending the needle trades to China?

I actually think Jacobs read the garbage written by Calabresi. But he'd no more admit to this than admit to reading porn. (We all seem to know it, though, when it flies by.)

Someday? Computers and data mining are gonna have to solve this mess. Simple inputs. If "a" then "b" ... and enough of the hogwash.

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 7:40:56 AM | Permalink

Dr. Joyner & anduril, the long-windedness of which this blog's masthead warns is not a newly acquired trait. That, having been fairly warned and having confirmed that warning from experience, you nonetheless return from time to time to read more here is, then, something I treat as a high compliment.

(6) NLG made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 11:02:20 AM | Permalink

Excellent post! You get it exactly right.

(7) Patterico made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 12:23:01 PM | Permalink

I read a little bit about this at Volokh, then decided that no blog post about the case is worth reading. So I haven't read your post. But I don't think you're right.

(8) DRJ made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 3:18:04 PM | Permalink

Having clerked himself, Patterico knows Judge Jacobs was aware of the general substance of the majority opinion and that his claim not to have read the opinion was provocative - just like Patterico's comment here. Patterico is a clever guy and he's clearly decided to give you a dose of Judge Jacob's medicine. That's why I enjoyed his comment almost as much as I enjoyed Judge Jacob's dissent, but I agree with Beldar.

(9) Patterico made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 5:56:44 PM | Permalink

OK, I've now read Beldar's post.

Volokh thinks the majority opinion sets an important precedent. Beldar disagrees.

I'm wondering how to decide which of them is right. Any suggestions, Beldar?

(10) Beldar made the following comment | Jul 15, 2007 6:44:33 PM | Permalink

DRJ, our mutual friend: You're right, I'm sure, that Patterico's been smiling broadly as he commented here and (graciously) posted on his own blog with a link to this post. His and my internet friendship survived Harriet Miers, and there's no way this case could damage it. I've taken no offense, and I'm sure he's meant none.

Patterico: As is my tendency, in answering your question, I've written more than ought be in a comment, so I'm putting my answer in a new post.

(11) Orin Kerr made the following comment | Jul 16, 2007 7:43:12 AM | Permalink


It seems like we disagree on only a very minor point: I take Judge Jacobs at his word that he didn't read the majority opinion, and you suspect he probably skimmed it or had a law clerk read it and was just trying to be dramatic.

(12) R. Loblaw made the following comment | Jul 16, 2007 10:39:01 AM | Permalink

Thanks for helping me see the light! I was having trouble getting past all of those paragraphs in which Chief Judge Jacobs gratuitously trashes the intelligence and writing of the plaintffs.

Anyway, how about we amend the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure so that judges can 12(b)(8) those claims that "lack in anything but contrived and feigned real world importance."

Heck, why stop there? Instead of wasting judges' valuable time, let's have a screening panel consisting of crusty, long-winded bloggers who feel confident deciding which constitutional claims are worthwhile. (I guess I'd be excluded from that elite group, but I'll live.)

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