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?

Federal Jury: Charity Guilty on All Counts

On November 24, a Dallas federal jury found the Holy Land Foundation and five of its organizers guilty on 108 separate charges connected with illegally funnneling at least $12 million to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization. The government's first attempt at prosecuting the charity ended in a mistrial in 2007. This jury rejected defense claims that the now-defunct foundation, which U.S. officials shut down in 2001, was a legitimate charity. According to the Dallas Morning News...
The verdicts are a major triumph for the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush, whose efforts at fighting terrorism financing have been troubled. Two other similar high-profile prosecutions targeting supporters of Palestinian militants have ended in acquittals, deadlocked juries or convictions on lesser charges...

Terrorism experts say Monday's verdicts demonstrate that complicated terrorism financing cases can be successfully prosecuted in American criminal courts. The verdicts also lend credibility to the Treasury Department's oft-criticized program of designating terrorist entities and freezing assets.

The verdict "sends a crystal-clear message that the United States will neither allow itself to serve as a cash cow for terrorist groups nor allow the charitable sector to be abused by groups financing terrorism under the cover of charity," said Matt Levitt, a Hamas expert and former high-ranking government intelligence official who testified in both trials.
The convictions were a culminaton of a 15-year investigation. The Holy Land Foundation was once the largest Islamic charity in the U.S. The U.S. State Department has formally designated Hamas as one of 44 foreign terrorist organizations.