Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Editorial: Justice Denied or Justice Delayed? Priscilla Owens wants on the federal bench

Willie Searcy.

Do you know that name? You should.

Searcy died in July 2001.

He didn't die of old age. He didn't die of "hard living" (however some moralists might want to define that).

Some might argue he died as a result of 'judicial neglect. '

Why does this matter?

The story starts in Texas (as so many seem to these days). Searcy's alive, it's 1993, he's traveling in a 1988 Ford truck. Traveling, not driving, he's only 14 years old.

Leaning forward as another car crossed the grassy median of I-35 and slammed into the Ford truck. Searcy's brother and step-father were, for the most part, unharmed. Willie Searcy wasn't so lucky. Why was that? As Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose noted, "The tension eliminator--the little mechanism that allows for slack in the shoulder belt-- didn't take up the slack
. . ." (Bushwhacked, p. 253)

So what happened? "The boy's chest hit the dashboard, tearing all the posterior ligaments that keep the skull in its proper place in relation to the spinal column" (ibid). What does that mean? It means a fourteen-year-old boy was left paralyzed and requiring a ventilator to breathe. It means a child was left needing "attendance twenty-four hours a day -- in order to stay alive" (ibid, p. 254).

And Willie's mother and step-father? Besides the tragedy of what's happened to their formerly active teenage son, they're also dealing with a financial nightmare of nonstop medical bills. Due to what was seen as a faulty seat belt, Willie's parents sued Ford. Ford tried to delay the trial early on. Willie's family got lucky at first, their judge was Donald Ross and he refused to delay the trial.

The trial moved quickly and the jury found Ford liable and awarded thirty million dollars in actual damages and ten million dollars in puntive damages. In a movie, there's your happy ending (or the closest to one you'll get). Willie Searcy's parents will be able to afford the care their child needs and vindication gives you the uplift.

But this wasn't a movie. Ford hires Baker Botts to defend them in their appeal. Proving that the house always wins, one of the judges hearing the appeal had earlier received $24,450 in contributions from Baker Botts.

By the way, this judge has a name, Priscilla Owens.

Sound familiar? Bully Boy's nominated her for the federal bench.

Again. Democrats were able to block her last go round. This time, who knows?

But you knew Willie's story didn't have a happy ending, so even if you've never heard of him before, you probably aren't surprised that Priscilla Owens has popped into the story, are you?

So when Owens, writing for the court, hands down the opinion (1996) you probably aren't surprised to learn that her symathies aren't with a paralyzed child. One who need costly medical care to live. Her concerns are elsewhere. And possibly since she had all the time in the world, she felt that Willie did as well?

Maybe her sympathies were with Ford because she likes a good truck?

Who knows?

What is known is that people (outside of Ford) have a hard time seeing this is as "justice."
Willie died waiting for justice. And what the court delivered (with Owens writing the opinion) didn't resemble a sound legal argument. It's hard to argue rule of law when you base your ruling on a law that no longer exists.

Is she inept? Is she just someone who trips the sunny side of the street to saddle up to big business while thumbing her nose at the people? Or maybe as a judge, she didn't feel part of her job was keeping up to speed with legislation? Maybe she had other things to do? Willie was just trying to stay alive.

Who knows what Priscilla Owens was trying to do? What we do know is that July 3, 2001, Willie died. His ventilator failed, the system failed. Priscilla Owens is part of that system.

In 1995, things looked much differently for Willie and his family. They'd won their case. A jury had awarded damages. Owens is part of a system that drug the case out and prevented monies from being awarded when they could have helped pay for the care that would have saved Willie's life.

Judges make difficult decisions. No question. And the law isn't always fair. A judge who does the legal thing may not be doing the right thing. When that happens, whether you agree with the decision or not, you can fall back on the fact that it reflected the laws in place. But that's not what happened with Owens's decision. As a judge, ruling on what was for all intents and purposes a life or death case (other judges involved grasped the life or death issues involved), Owens didn't fall back on the law. She fell back on an outmoded law that the Texas legislature had already rendered obsolete.

Maybe it's not her fault Willie's dead?

But wasn't it her job to know the law? And as a judge, wasn't it her job to ensure that justice moved at a reasonable rate?

Owens want to serve on the federal bench. Owens wants Americans to rally to her cause. Owens wants the Senate to confirm her.

That's a lot of wants.

I think Willie & his family just wanted a fair hearing in a reasonable amount of time. They didn't get their want.

We all know what Owens wants, but has she earned the right to sit on the federal bench?

Yes, this is the entry long promised (two Fridays ago). Sorry for the delay. (I believe it was April 22nd but the archives for April stop at April 20th so I could be wrong.) I'd urged members to consult Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's Bushwhacked (specifically refer to pages 2309-239). This entry is based on their reporting there.

I'd also recommend Lou Dubose's "Trial and Error: How Priscilla Owen 'poured out' Willie Searcey" from the April 25, 2003 Texas Monthly.

You can also check out the Reporter-News Online: Texas News for the July 16, 2002 article entitled "Death of Plaintiff Could Haunt Nominee."

And Christy Harvey, Judd Legum and Jonathan Baskin's "The Progress Report" (which they wrote with Nico Pitney and Mipe Okunseinde) is worth reading as well.

The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.