Interesting: Souter takes on originalists at Harvard

For those who watch the U.S. Supreme Court, a theory of constitutional interpretation–so-called “originalism”–is now in vogue. The theory, which is often mouthed by politicians, suggests that the only way to interpret the U.S. Constitution is to look at what the founders wanted and thought and felt back when they wrote the document.

It’s got simplistic appeal, even if it’s a fairly goofy notion. It’s goofy, in that history is rarely anything if not subjective, such that anyone who claims to know what the founders thought centuries ago is necessarily guessing. Sometimes it’s an educating guess, but it’s a guess all the same. As well, it presumes that all should be set in stone, without considering the tremendous changes brought over the centuries by technology, population growth, culture and the like.

Maybe I can explain what I mean better by asking this simple question: What would Thomas Jefferson or James Madison have thought about Google? Originalists claim to be able to apply the founders’ intentions to free speech issues in the Google-era. I think that’s fanciful at best. “My answer, for what it’s worth, is, “Who knows?!”

Originalist thinking seems to go beyond constitutional adjudication. For that reason, the airy concepts are more important to consumers than we might realize.

So all of that is background for big props to CBS legal correspondent Andrew Cohen, a Twitter friend, who wrote this thoughtful piece on Justice Souter’s commencement speech at Harvard. Justice Souter, who retired recently, takes a reality-driven view of the constitution. He understands that much of work of constitutional interpretation is difficult because the values embodied in the constitution co-exist in tension. That tension creates ambiguity, which is necessarily at odds with originalists and sound-bite politicians whose world is black and white.

I’m a fan. If the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court matter to you, it’s worth a read. Hats off to Andrew Cohen for noting and explaining what many of us missed.

Addendum: Link to the text of the Souter speech…I would credit a particular Philadelphia rock star lawyer who passed it along, but that would be wrong for reasons I can’t begin to explain.

Calling out Oregon lawyers by name

Yes, I’m going to name names here. That’s how we do things. But before I start throwing the dirt, I want to be clear about what they’ve done.

Last week, a case I’ve been working on–Bixby v. KBR–got a lot of press. This is the Oregon National Guard soldiers’ toxic exposure injury case against KBR, Inc. (New motto: “We’re no longer Halliburton.”) [Brief note to KBR/Halliburton: That was a joke. -ed.]

Anyhow, I received a number of comments from friends and colleagues. Invariably, some included gentle ribbing about the picture of the middle-aged attorney who seems way more serious and sober than usual. Some included the kind of “Attaboy” comments from colleagues with whom I’ve shared foxholes.

Those are good. But there were a few that were better.

Over the course of the years, I’ve been up against talented and tough opposing counsel in all manner of cases. Two former (and future) adversaries took time to send notes and emails lauding my efforts and wishing me well on these cases. And these are the two Oregon lawyers who I want to call out by name.

Carol Bernick, Partner-in-Charge at Davis Wright Tremaine, and W.A. Jerry North, a shareholder at Schwabe Williamson Wyatt, have both been opposite me in hard-fought cases.  We’ve each had our wins and our losses in big cases.

Each of them wrote notes about the Oregon National Guard cases. The recognition is nice, but what’s better is what it says about the legal profession in Oregon. Both are top-notch opponents. Neither gives an inch in their cases. Still, they can recognize the work of a colleague.

This is why I treasure practicing law in Oregon.  Despite our differences and our courtroom fights, we still have the sense and wisdom to recognize the good works of our colleagues and opponents. When I talk to colleagues in other states, they can’t believe that we generally get along with opposing counsel, work toward stipulations on things on which we can agree, and then bring it full force to fight when we cannot agree. Our clients are well-served by all of this, and we who fight for a living gain a measure of comfort by knowing that the places and times we battle are simply what we do.

So Jerry and Carol show by quiet act what professionalism means to Oregon attorneys. I am deeply appreciative of their kind private messages. But more, it speaks to a vision of how Oregon attorneys carry themselves.  Thank you, friends, for your grace.

Update: Bixby v. KBR-today’s story

Mike Doyle and I were in court this morning fighting off more KBR motions. The KBR defendants asked Judge Papak to prohibit us from taking discovery because–according to KBR–their motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction required no discovery. They also asked Judge Papak to prohibit discovery until the soldiers proved their levels of exposure–a so-called “Lone Pine” order. Judge Papak ruled that we can get our discovery to respond to the next KBR motion to dismiss. He is allowing us full discovery from U.S. Army witnesses–subject, of course, to Army regulations. He denied the KBR motion for an order requiring us to prove the cause and existence of soldiers’ injuries before we could get discovery.  It’s a win for the Oregon soldiers.

Also from today, here’s a link to a story in today’s Oregonian. I think I can speak for all the soldiers when I express my admiration for The Oregonian‘s  Julie Sullivan.  Her tenacity in refusing to let this story die inspires me. Telling their story is a powerful thing.

Our next hearing is scheduled for July 12 at 10:00 a.m.  At that time, Judge Papak will hear KBR’s next motion to dismiss. Meantime, we’ll be doing discovery and filing our opposition.

My good friend and frequent collaborator, Oregon trial lawyer extraordinaire Robert Neuberger, tells me that every big case needs a theme song. I’ve got ours for this case, courtesy of Tom Petty:  “Stand My Ground.”

A word from the editor about comments

This is something of a rant directed at spammers. Regular readers and interested visitors aren’t covered by this. But you know that!

Allowing comments on this blog is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when I get thoughtful feedback that makes think about something. Ditto for those who ask questions about things that matter.

But it’s a curse because I’m left to weed out spam. Sure, my askimet plug-in does most of the work, but I find myself sliding through the alleged comments to figure out whether they are legit. It’s become a daily chore. So if you’re a spam flinger, let me save you a few keystrokes and give you some guidelines.

1. If it’s not in language that I read and can understand, it is presumably spam.  That’s not an “English only,” or jingoistic policy, as I read and understand several languages.  If it ain’t in one of mine, it’s gone. Hint: I do not read Russian, Chinese or Japaneses. So move along.

2. Links in the comment? Almost always dead, unless it’s clearly on topic.

3. commercial cites with general “I have bookmarked this post,” “great blog!” and references to RSS dysfunction? Dead and gone.

4. Confidential information about a legal matter will not be posted.That’s not spam; it’s just us protecting you from prying eyes.

5. Abusive or non-sense comments? Maybe posted with ridicule from me or maybe just deleted. Depends on my mood.

You have something to say? We’re all ears. We love comments. But this isn’t  a forum to provide any fool with internet access and our url with a place to post foolishness.

End rant.

David

KOIN-6 covers the Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland class action

Portland’s KOIN 6 did this report KOIN 6 News Report on Trade Schools covering our consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland and their parent, Career Education Corp. The coverage helps tell the story, though it maybe compresses the issues a bit too much. I guess that’s television.

Meanwhile, we’re pushing forward on the case. The next step–class notice–is tied up a bit in the details. I’m hoping we’ll get that moving soon.

KBR’s next motion to dismiss-subject matter jurisdiction

Late Friday, KBR filed its next motion to dismiss in Bixby v. KBR, Inc., 3:09 cv 00632-PK (D. Or.). Now the KBR defendants argue that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. KBR raises the political question doctrine, sovereign immunity and the Federal Tort Claims Act, and combatant activities doctrine. I’m especially tickled by the political question doctrine, as it cites Marbury v. Madison and Baker v. Carr.

For those whose geekiness knows no bounds, here is a pdf version of the memorandum: 46-1 KBR memo in support of motion to dismiss subj matter jur

No one said this case would be easy. (No one was right.)

My dear friend and frequent collaborator Robert Neuberger tells me that a really good case demands a theme song. I’m sure it’s pure happenstance, but I’ve already settled on a theme song for this case.  In the words of Tom Petty, “I won’t back down.”

I Won’t Back Down

A boy and his dog

A Boy and His Dog was a mid-1970’s science fiction movie set in the rubble of the U.S. destroyed by nuclear war. It features a young Don Johnson and his telepathic dog. The title is fetching. The film–while flawed and violent–is darkly comic and memorable.

I’m reminded of the relationship between the boy and his dog after impulsively giving into my longstanding dog lust. A beautiful German Shepard puppy needed a home, and we adopted her a few weeks ago. I call our pup the toddler-bomb because we went from a calm and sedate mid-life household to the chaos of owning a large eight-month old Shepard.

It’s been two weeks, and life has changed. Lots of long walks. Lots of lost sleep. A mountain of dog hair. Two pissed off cats. The gamy smell of a house inhabited by a dog.  Most of my friends and family shake their heads, roll their eyes, and question my sanity.

I guess that’s a reasonable reaction. She’s turned the world upside down. For those who have noticed a slowing my blogging, blame the pup.

She’s a challenge for a 50-year old guy, but she comes with laughs and love. The best laugh came via my beloved, who pointed out that while I was at low risk for running off with a young trophy wife, the pup would be the best prophylactic for any notion of having babies in a new life. “You’re too old!” she snorted. She’s so right.

We’ve had our ups and downs.  The worst was when she lunged at my beloved’s best friend. And then there are the p.o.’d cats and the barking. But on the upside, the long walks get my out of my head, and they have helped to melt the excesses of my bulging middle. And she’s filled us with love and laughter. So yeah, it’s good.

The wise ones at doggy obedience school–yes, we’re doing that–tell me that Shepards need a job. Ellie has a job, which is getting this middle aged guy out of his head and off of his couch. She’s doing it beautifully.  And so a middle aged boy and his dog are doing well.

Ruling allows Oregon National Guard toxic exposure case against KBR to go forward

This is an update on our case, Bixby v. KBR, U.S. District Court Case No. CV 09-632-PK  (D. Or.).  In the case, soldiers serving in the Oregon National Guard claim that KBR defendants  are responsible for their exposures to hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing toxic chemical. The soldiers claim that KBR knew or should have known that the Qarmat Ali site was contaminated. They claim that KBR officials knowingly sent the soldiers into harm’s way when KBR repeatedly requested security at the site.

The KBR defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the Oregon court lacked jurisdiction over them.  Today, Judge Papak denied the motions. For those interested, I’ve uploaded (pdf) his opinion: 44 – Opinion and Order re def’s motion to dismiss. It’s fairly technical. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re interested in the nuances of personal jurisdiction.

Judge Papak did not pass on the merits of the case. That is for the jury. Rather, he simply decided that the Oregon soldiers will have their day in court in Oregon. Judge Papak ruled based upon case law (precedent) from the Ninth Circuit setting out and applying the effects test.

It’s a particularly important ruling because there was a major risk that if he dismissed the case, no court would have the authority to hear the case against all of the defendants.  I am pleased with the ruling, though of course there is far to go.

Up is down-Republican leaders call for judicial restraint from Obama Supreme Court nominee

It’s official. Justice Stevens announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court effective the end of this term. Court watchers have been speculating for a while that this would happen.

Here is one of many news reports. I’m taken by this quote from the linked MSNBC report by Senator Mitch McConnell (R Ky):

“Americans can expect Senate Republicans to make a sustained and vigorous case for judicial restraint and the fundamental importance of an evenhanded reading of the law.”

This is great news, as the Senate Republicans are now ready to reign in the activist Roberts Court. This is the activist Court that brought us Citizens United.  And that’s only the most recent overreach.  Senator McConnell’s talking-point quote seems oddly ironic, given that he supported Justices Alito and Roberts and the rest of the activist wing of the Court. But then I suppose one could pointedly say that it’s all about whose ox is getting gored.

Here are a few thin suggestions from a simple consumer attorney toiling in the hinterland:

1. How about we jettison the labels? The reality is that Justice Stevens was hardly liberal by comparison to many of his predecessors. Labeling him as a leader of the “liberal wing” of the Court is media hype and talking-point noise. There is no liberal wing to the Court. And those who claim to be the conservative wing are pretenders. I can imagine Justices Frankfurter and Harlan turning over in their graves.

2. Let’s not forget history: Justice Stevens is one of many Supreme Court justices who proved to be different than presumed. Justice Stevens voted differently than expected on major issues.  Same was true of Justice Brennan.

3.  I suppose the posturing is inevitable. Still, is it too much to ask that you deal truthfully? If Sen. McConnell truly supports judicial restraint, where was he during the Roberts confirmation hearing? Meantime, maybe he can take steps to make it up to us by truly working for a non-activist majority on the Court.

Wells’ Fargo class action flop in California via Complex Litigator

For those of us in the trenches representing consumers in class actions, it’s always nice to find good information resources in the law blog world. I’ve stopped by the Complex Litigator a few times. I only caught this post on a consumer class against Wells Fargo because of a Twitter post alerting me to it.

The case, Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo Co., 2010 WL 1233810, 2010 U.S. Dist. Lexis 29082 (N.D.  Cal.  Mar. 26, 2010), arises out of allegedly illegal banking practices that led to improper assessment of overdraft fees. The federal court certified a class, and Wells Fargo filed a motion to decertify the class.

Digression: In representing consumers in class action cases, I privately think of motions to decertify as “Waah! motions,” as they often stand on the same arguments that didn’t succeed, and they frequently employ heated prose to attempt to change the Court’s mind on a decision previously rendered.  In my experience, they are often an expensive waste of time.

Complex Litigator points out that the court found the small amounts at stake to be important in finding a class action would be superior. This was true when the court certified the class and remained true in the decertification motion. The small-stake problem is an important concept that sometimes gets lost in the heated U.S. Chamber of Commerce talking-point criticisms of class actions.

The nickel and diming effect is one that I’ve written about before, but the short version is that consumer class actions provide a means of stopping illegal practices that take small amounts from a large number of people. A corporation that illegally takes a few bucks from a million people makes a few million. Handsome profit if it’s not stopped.

The more interesting part of the CL blog post quotes the court.  As a side note, I’m a bit confused, as it appears to be a quote from an earlier opinion in the case, or maybe I’m missing something. I don’t see the quoted language in the cited Lexis opinion. Likely, it’s my confusion due to insufficient coffee. Nevertheless, I’ll take as a given that CL correctly quotes the court.

Wells Fargo sought decertification because–it argued–the class did a poor job of modeling class-wide damages.  As CL explains,

“It is interesting that the weaknesses in defendant’s transaction data was used by the court to nullify challenges to the methodology used by plaintiffs’ expert to assess damages for the class.  The court found that the same flaws in data would impact an individual’s attempt to prove damages.  The opinion contains a detailed discussion, with an example, of the allged (sic) practices and the damage extrapolation methodology used by plaintiffs’ expert.”

The underlying data problem is one that I see from time-to-time in consumer class actions.  Defendants often resist production of class membership and damage data in large consumer class actions. And once they produce it , they sometimes go so far as to attack the class’s damages model because of the insufficient underlying data. That’s  one of those ironic arguments that I love to see defendants make.

Anyway, kudos to Complex Litigator for pointing out the opinion. Interesting reading for class action practitioners, especially those who handle consumer class actions.