Thursday, June 12, 2014

I'm not a lawyer...

[It has become a bit of a running joke that when Republican lawmakers say "I'm not a scientist,"  they mean "I'm not a scientist but you should listen to me anyway." When I say "I'm not a lawyer," I mean go out and find someone who knows something about the law and ask him or her about the broader potential ramifications of the topic at hand. The following has no expertise behind it and should be treated strictly as a starting point for a discussion.]

Let's crudely sum up the ruling of Vergara v. California as follows: if there is a reasonable possibility that an incompetent member of a given profession can cause serious and disproportionate economic or personal damage to certain disadvantaged groups, then any law making it more difficult to fire a member of that profession is unconstitutional.

Yes, I realize that's grossly oversimplified and I'm almost certainly missing some important nuances, but for the sake of the discussion, take a minute and think about the logical implications of such a precedent. Can you think of any fields other than education where the broad outlines of this ruling might apply? The police come to mind immediately. All of the major arguments used to argue for reducing/eliminating tenure (the importance of the work, the potential for damage, the likelihood of discrimination) could be used to argue for making all police officers at-will employees. Nor is there any immediately obvious reason this should stop there.

I'm not saying that the lawyers who argued against California's tenure policy, or the judge who ruled against it or the people who support the ruling want to see things go that far. I suspect that pretty much all of them would prefer that this decision is applied narrowly and applied to this specific context, but that's not how precedents work.

One of the many reasons why legislating from the bench is a bad idea is because legislatures have the freedom to be irrational and inconsistent. They can invent nonsensical justifications for their laws and they can change their standards from day to day with little real harm. In court rulings, the reasons are the most important part. When a judge is sloppy or, worse yet, reasons backwards (starting with a desired conclusion and inventing arguments for it), the result is bad law.

 I don't know if that's what we have here. I do know it's something we should be talking about.

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