Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 9, 2005
LAW: Not Unusual
Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro pens an odd dispatch (reg. req.) on John Roberts' first opinion as Chief Justice, a unanimous opinion for the Court in Martin v. Franklin Capital Corp., No. 04-1140 (U.S. Dec. 7, 2005):
The case, which interpreted the statute that governs the removal and remand of civil cases between state and federal courts, did not lend itself to soaring constitutional rhetoric, and it got none from the chief justice.
Mauro is right that the opinions issued this early in the term are usually unanimous dispositions of cases raising no major constitutional issues. But actually, I found this opinion to be both important and eloquent. Important, because successful remand motions are a fairly common event - maybe not to the average citizen, but to practicing lawyers - and thus the standard for awards of attorneys fees in that situation is a matter of practical significance. The need for the Supreme Court to revisit this issue being unlikely, this opinion will probably still be routinely cited a hundred years from now.
And eloquent, in Roberts' treatment of how courts deal with matters that are within the discretion of the district judge, in a passage that is likely to be widely cited outside of its narrow context:
The fact that an award of fees under Sec. 1447(c) is left to the district court's discretion, with no heavy congressional thumb on either side of the scales, does not mean that no legal standard governs that discretion. We have it on good authority that "a motion to [a court's] discretion is a motion, not to its inclination, but to its judgment; and its judgment is to be guided by sound legal principles." United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 30, 35 (No. 14,692d) (CC Va. 1807) (Marshall, C. J.). Discretion is not whim, and limiting discretion according to legal standards helps promote the basic principle of justice that like cases should be decided alike. See Friendly, Indiscretion About Discretion, 31 Emory L. J. 747, 758 (1982). For these reasons, we have often limited courts' discretion to award fees despite the absence of express legislative restrictions. . .
(As some other commentators noted, Roberts managed to slip in citations to both judges he clerked for, then-Justice Rehnquist and legendary Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly).