The Wait

The longest I can recall was Supreme Court Justice Edward Greenfield, but those were civil cases. So what if a judge failed to decide a motion for a while, even if that “while” was nine years.  It was merely fortunes, reputations, people who wanted to move forward with their lives but were constrained to wait.

The answer we all keep in our pocket when a litigant gets antsy and demands to know why the court hasn’t yet ruled on his case is that we can call up the judge and yell at him, but it’s not likely to make the judge any more inclined to rule in our client’s favor.  That usually shuts them up.  You see, we all know the maxim, “justice delayed is justice denied.”  But lawyers know that an adverse ruling is invariably “justice denied” to the losing party.  Such is the nature of “justice.”

But what about freedom delayed?  The delay didn’t work out too well for Omer Harland Gallion, who waited for United States District Judge Percy Anderson to rule.  From the L.A. Times :

Justice delayed was justice denied for Omer Harland Gallion. He died in prison in his sixth year of waiting for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to act on a decision that he had been wrongfully convicted and should be released or retried.

Anderson took no action until December, when he dismissed the matter as moot after an attorney brought Gallion’s death to his attention.

In other cases, Judge Anderson was similarly dilatory:

Two other cases in which junior judicial officials found grounds for striking prisoners’ felony convictions also languished unattended by Anderson for five and a half and eight years, respectively. Another prisoner who petitioned for relief in 2002 is still waiting for an answer.

What’s significant about these cases isn’t merely that Judge Anderson failed to rule for years, but these were the rarest of the rare: Habeas corpuse petitions that were granted by a United States Magistrate Judge.  These were the winners, the ones where the defendants prevailed at the first stage and waited only for review and approval by the district court judge.

They won!  Guys sitting in prison, trying desperately to vindicate their rights, and they won.  And then . . . nothing.  For Gallion, he took his win to the grave.  He was buried a waiting winner, abated only by reason of death.

This is inexcusable.  The contention of lawyers who work the courthouse is that Judge Anderson just doesn’t like defendants, as there is no other rationale that could explain his letting people who won before the Magistrate die in prison without a ruling.

On the other hand, the chief judge says she’s cool with that.

“Judge Anderson is an excellent judge,” said Chief Judge Audrey B. Collins. “I have absolutely no reason to believe there was any bias that permeated his handling or played any part whatsoever in this.” She noted that the district’s 25 active judges carry caseloads that should be spread among at least 36.

And they’re not paid enough, either. And the sun’s in their eyes.  And an innocent guy died in prison after waiting six years for review of the mag’s ruling.  And this is just fine.

Of course, the problem is trying to come up with a tipping point, how long should it take for a judge to decide something.  How long should a man’s legs be?  (Answer: long enough to reach the ground.)

One of the most significant failures of the legal system is that it fails to address the grievances of the groundlings with sufficient speed that it serves the underlying need to resolve complaints.  Everything takes too long, and everyone in the system has a finger in this failing to one extent or another.  The difference between judges and everyone else, of course, is that they get to order the rest of us to do stuff.  We don’t get to order judges at all. 

Even a nice call to chambers to remind the judge that, well, the infant whose compromise needs approval has just turned 47 risks being an annoyance.  Some judges are above letting an annoying lawyer alter his decision.  Others are not.  All realize that one pen stroke, right, wrong or otherwise, can teach an annoying lawyer a lesson.  That the client will suffer may not influence them.

Many jurisdictions have established standards and practices, and some even rules, that require a judge to rule within a specific time frame to avoid litigants languishing.  The problem arises when the judges fail to do so.  Most of these rules place the burden on the lawyer to nudge the judge.  They hate being nudged.  They hate a poke even more.  Nobody wants to be the one who pokes the person deciding one’s fate.

This is, in essence, a pocket veto by a district court judge.  By simply not ruling, a man remains in prison. It cannot be appealed, reviewed, challenged, questioned.  The habeas petition sits, and so does the defendant.  Until he dies.

And where is the court administration in all this?  Well, I suppose that some administrative judges are on top of such matters as motions or petitions languishing for a year. Or six. Or 9.  But that Judge Anderson is allowed to sit on the Magistrate’s ruling for the balance of a lifetime, and still gets the public pat on the back from his chief judge, tells us that the push, if any, isn’t working.

Omer Harland Gallion died waiting for Judge Anderson to rule on his win before the Mag.  No one should ever have to wait that long.  It’s an outrage and cannot be countenanced.  And let’s be honest, the problem isn’t the district’s not having enough judges. A problem perhaps, but not the reason for this.  There is no reason for this.

H/T Billy

3 thoughts on “The Wait

  1. Andrew

    Do you think someone filed a complaint pursuant to 28 USC § 351 (which, clearly, was dismissed if it was filed)? If not, do you think anyone with standing will do so and, better yet, find a way to get the Chief Judge recused since she has made a public statement about the case?

    I have little hope that anything useful would come from such a complaint directly, but if this isn’t “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts,” I don’t know what is.

  2. SHG

    Since I don’t know, I don’t know. But if I had to guess, no, no one did or will file a complaint.  Which is a shame, as this is most assuredly “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.”

  3. Kathleen Casey

    Disbarment or at least a suspension would be a solution but the local version of the Grievance Committee probably would not consider a complaint and would refer Mr. Gallion’s next of kin to a judicial conduct commission. For a slap on the wrist.

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