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Society’s Empathic Formula: Law + Human Error = Judicial Discretion June 15, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society.
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 The U.S. Supreme Court rendered two decisions yesterday being categorized by the New York Times as “A Good Day For Judicial Discretion.”  In a 7-2 decision, the Court provides Albert Holland with another chance to argue that the statute of limitations for filing his federal habeas corpus petition should have been tolled due to his lawyer’s extraordinary negligence in  failing to appropriately communicate with his client and failing to timely file the paperwork necessary to maintain  Mr Holland’s right to appeal.  Mr Holland was convicted of first degree murder in Florida’s state court and remains on Florida’s death row.  The dissent in the case submits that the law, as stated, does not provide this type of flexible result and that the injection of equity dilutes established law. (See pdf link to full case  within the link to the editorial)

Beyond the  technical, legal analysis of the standards for tolling the particular statute’s time limits in this case, is the compelling question of when empathy and equity should be infused into the established code of law.  If as a society, our laws should reflect our morals and ethics, then when the laws are applied in a manner that the “majority” views as a miscarriage of justice, should  there be some reconsideration or distinction acknowledged between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law?

Justice Breyer writes the majority opinion and suggests that an absolute adherence to the letter of the law could result in “the evils of archaic rigidity.”  Conversely, Judge Scalia contends, in the dissent, that Judges do not have the authority to “tinker” with the Constitution or the laws of Congress regardless of how compelling the facts of a case may appear.

So, in an enlightened democracy, do we apply the law strictly as written and urge legislators to reevaluate and revise the law if it’s application appears unjust? Or do we cloak our judges with discretion and rely on their insight and wisdom to reach a just result?

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