Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Eve Musings

This blog's charter allows us to on occasion veer off into other legal issues apart from homeland security. So what better time than on Thanksgiving Eve. Did you know that Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving in mid October? In any event, speaking of Canada (and the possible connection with festive eating), that country's Supreme Court ruled on November 19 that obese people have the right to two seats for the price of one on domestic flights. Actually, the High Court let stand a lower court ruling to that effect, but the net result is the same.

This is the type of legal dispute that stirs up profound mixed emotions, like the 2001 Casey Martin case. In general, we don't favor government intervention into how businesses manage their internal operations. Yet, this news report cites individuals with severe arthritis or hormonal disorders that will be legitimately helped by this decision. And airplane seats are not roomy to begin with for any passenger. On the other hand, for the ordinary overweight person, if there is such a thing, wouldn't it be better to seek remedies through diet, nutrition, and exercise rather than through the courts? How many other travelers will be prevented from getting a ticket on a flight under this new policy? And to what extent will this mandate undermine the airline industry's already shaky financial viability? The news article also identifies at least one practical problem in terms of implementation: "A possible sticking point is how to decide when obesity is a disability. The agency has recommended the airlines adopt a policy used by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which gives a free seat to people who are too big to lower their armrest." Unfortunately, courts are often ill-equipped or unwilling to address real-world implementation or the associated unintended consequences.

Here in the states, the number of overweight persons seems to be, well, expanding. At least that's what the media says, but visiting any mall or other public gathering place seems to provide empirical evidence. This reminds us of a seemingly unrelated issue: the syndicated courtroom shows on television. In virtually all of those shows, the television judge hearing the cases--complaints that originated in Small Claims courts around the country--showboats, grandstands, and yells at the litigants. Note that these proceedings are technically binding arbitration hearings; the parties have agreed to drop their actual Small Claims case in the original jurisdiction in order to get the case heard on TV by an arbitrator (typically a former judge) but with the trappings of a court trial

The one exception seems to be Marilyn Milian, a former state circuit judge from Miami, who currently presides over The People's Court. (The New York Times called the show "quick and dirty justice served up for mass consumption." Judge Milian often says on the show that she administers "rough justice".) Okay, so she also showboats, grandstands, and yells at the litigants, and she sometimes even prevents the parties from introducing all of their evidence. Yet, the show is unusually informative for the viewer in that Judge Milian takes the time to explain how the principles of law apply to each case (as does the TMZ guy who does the wrap-around commentary in Times Square). She even discusses how the law of the parties' jurisdiction--which may differ in certain respects from general legal principles--applies to their case. So amidst the fender benders, shady contractors, and jilted lovers fighting over the eternal question of loan vs. gift, you can really learn a lot about law from that program.

But, we have noticed that somewhere in the range of roughly 60-70% of the litigants seem to be, well, noticeably overweight. So is there an odd correlation between Small Claims and large bodies, or is the show merely a cross-section of the real America?

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