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.
Instead it was a straightforward eight-and-a-half-page ruling with few flourishes and only one footnote. The Court ruled that when a case is removed to federal court but then sent back to state court, attorney fees should not be awarded when the party who sought removal had an objectively reasonable basis for doing so.
It is customary at the Court for a justice’s first opinion to come in a case that draws no dissents. But Kenneth Geller of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, a longtime connoisseur of Supreme Court opinions, noted that Chief Justice Roberts “could have assigned himself anything. It shows some humility that he assigned himself such an unimportant case.”

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).

One thought on “Not Unusual”

  1. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t play one on TV, and I tend to gloss over legal writing on the grounds that any group that writes the way it does, making Hemmingway look quick, and calls 400 page books “briefs” deserves short shrift. I’ll take your word for it Crank that the opinion is short, well written and to the point. If so, then I really appreciate Roberts (and as a slightly left of center liberal, it means something) because it means that:
    1. His opinions will leave little left ot imagination; if he does indeed write succinctly and to the point, then what he writes, and probably insists on from others, makes sense withou t excess verbiage.
    2. He feels he is there tobe a Supreme Court Justice, not a legal theoritician at the top of the pyramid
    3. Has probably ran into practical problems in real life and figured this opinion, while not sexy, would have some real use.
    If the above is true, then this guy will indeed make a difference, and I hope a great one. Between Douglas and Scalia, I have had my fill of great legal theorists, who have no clue what the real world is like.

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