Saturday, April 22, 2006

On dueling statutes

I read with interest Friday's decision by the Virginia Supreme Court in the case of Ogunde v. Commonwealth. The choice was between Va. Code § 8.01-195.7, the limitations contained in the Virginia Tort Claims Act, and Va. Code § 8.01-243.2, the inmate limitations statute, which refers specifically to claims brought by persons in a state correctional facility pertaining to the conditions of their confinement. The opinion was written by the late Justice Compton.

And, the opinion concludes that the Tort Claims limitation applies, as the statute of "narrower" application. The question seems much closer to me than the opinion suggests. The Circuit Court might reasonably have concluded that the inmate statute is considerably "narrower" - the Tort Claims Act covers the entirety of state government, whereas the inmate statute is limited to the claims of state inmates related to the conditions of their confinement. The Supreme Court in its opinion sought to "harmonize" the two statutes, and to avoid the "implied" repeal of the earlier statute. A contrary view might be that the Court's decision makes meaningless the later statute as applied to state inmates.

The Court notes that the inmate statute might be applied to claims other than for money damages. This point seems off the mark. Statutes of limitations apply principally to claims for damages, and not claims for equitable relief. Indeed, the statute refers to a "personal action," a term of art defined elsewhere in Title 8.01's chapter on limitations to "include an action wherein a judgment for money is sought, whether for damages to person or property." Va. Code § 8.01-228. The timeliness of equitable claims is sometimes measured by equitable doctrines such as laches.

The point is not to say that the Court is wrong, but rather than its analysis fits with what I've been reading lately, which is the recent biography of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by Joan Biskupic - Sandra Day O'Connor : How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. It is a lively and interesting book. One of the themes is to contrast the judicial philosophies of O'Connor and other justices, including Justice Scalia. Included in the book is the following quote from Justice Scalia:

"I don't think a judge is supposed to come up with the best result. He's supposed to come up with the result that the law demands. Almost always he's dealing with a text and almost always his job is to give the text the fairest, most reasonable interpretation. Only in that way is he being faithful to the democratic experiment. Sometimes you reach results that are not good results. That's because sometimes laws that are adopted are not good laws." I take this to mean that "harmonization" is not among Scalia's priorities.

By contrast, of Justice O'Connor, Professor Jeffries is quoted as saying: "She tries, first, to do justice on the facts of a particular case. Then she links the results in the case to general principles." All this appears in chapter 15, which is as far as I've gotten.

Applying this new-found knowledge, I would guess that this limitations opinion is more like O'Connor than Scalia, but not that there's anything wrong with that.

On the flip side, I also was interested in the Supreme Court's decision in the Front Royal Wal-Mart case, Jacabcin v. Front Royal. In that case, involving the controversial rezoning for the construction of a big box store in the town, two council members declared that they had conflicts of interest and refused to attend the meeting at which the rezoning to be decided. A third member also refused to show up, leaving only three members out of six. The three pressed on, relying on language in the Conflict of Interest Act, Va. Code § 2.2-3112(C), as an exception to the general requirement of a quorum under Va. Code § 15.2-1415. The Court in an opinion by Judge Russell concluded that the COIA was inapplicable, and the conflicted council members should have shown up for purposes of establishing a quorum, then managed to avoid participation in the discussion of the rezoning matter - even though the concept of "participation" is ill-defined, and the penalties for violation of COIA include the prospects of criminal prosecution and forfeiture of office. Va. Code §§ 2.2-3120 and 2.2-3122. The Court quotes language from 2.2-3112, about "the number required by law to act," then cites to the statute titled "At what meetings governing body may act," and concludes that the two statutes are totally unrelated. The Court discusses how the quorum requirement is important democracy, without addressing the effect that having present at the critical meeting those council members who were conflicted because of ties to one side the confidence of citizens or businesses supporting the other side.

The Front Royal Wal-Mart was the subject of high emotions, and there were many outraged opponents of the rezoning. The Wal-Mart people have now lost the case because conflicted legislators sought to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The former legislator O'Connor might have tried to find a way to salvage the town's vote. The Front Royal decision, as it applies a bright-line principle, with some inharmonious effects, seems to me more Scalia-like.

That's the problem with reading books, you get filled with ideas.

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