Tuesday, October 18, 2016

One Case, Three Law Lessons

Sexual assaults on college campuses are a matter of great concern. Changes in the way that colleges and universities handle campus disciplinary proceedings based on allegations of sexual assault have changed radically in the last few years.  Those teaching law in universities are likely well aware of the panoply of legal issues raised by lowering the evidentiary standards for proof of guilt, barring cross examination or witness confrontation and other issues. (Click here to read an article on the topic by ALSB member, Audrey Wolfson LaTourette.)

Brown student, John Doe, had been found "responsible" for sexual misconduct by a University tribunal and was suspended.  The case hinged on a factual dispute regarding consent. At the time of the incident, the University had no clearly defined definition of consent, although one was later adopted.  Doe was suspended based on the retroactive application of the definition.  Also, he was barred from presenting evidence in his defense.

Doe challenged the faulty procedure in federal court. Because Brown is a private university, Doe did not have a due process claim.  He filed suit for breach of contract. Recently, Chief Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, ruled in Doe's favor and ordered his reinstatement at Brown.

Lesson 1: Disputes must be resolved by a fair procedure of which both parties have had prior notice.

Sexual assaults on college campuses trigger deep emotions.  Victims deserve sympathy, support, validation and ultimately, justice. But the accused must also not be denied the legitimate opportunity to defend against the claims. The criminal justice system, with its Constitutional protections for the accused has been developed and fine tuned over the last two centuries. Finding and developing a completely different private adjudicatory system in colleges and universities that gives adequate consideration to the legitimate interests of victims and accused alike is a minefield of litigation.

Lesson 2: Federal judges cannot be lobbied like legislators.  They are appointed for life specifically to be less influenced by public opinion and passions.  The same principles may or may not apply to elected state court judges.

Judge Smith had been the target of a substantial e-mail lobbying campaign intended to affect his ruling.  In blasting the effort, Judge Smith explained: 

[T]he court is an independent body and must make a decision based solely on the evidence before it. It cannot be swayed by emotion or public opinion. After the preliminary injunction, this Court was deluged with emails resulting from an organized campaign to influence the outcome. These tactics, while perhaps appropriate and effective in influencing legislators or officials in the executive branch, have no place in the judicial process. This is basic civics, and one would think students and others affiliated with a prestigious Ivy League institution would know this. Moreover, having read a few of the emails, it is abundantly clear that the writers, while passionate, were woefully ignorant about the issues before the Court.

Before the court was only the issue of the procedural propriety of the tribunal - not the issue of guilt or innocence.

Lesson 3: The law is not just a set of predetermined rules that are mechanically applied to achieve justice. There is a lot of trial and error and experimentation and evolution. And in that process, real people's lives are affected.

Cases are not just academic thought exercises. They are the legal outcomes of real, often tragic, events affecting real people. Courts do not have the advantage of legislators who can pass a law and send it out into society to  see what happens.  Judicial rulings apply immediately to affect the lives of the litigants in often profound ways.

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