I confess here and now: I am a PACER junkie. For the uninitiated, PACER is the federal court online system.
I rarely go a day without looking for new court filings in the many court cases I follow. When a new motion is submitted, I’m in alt. Think how science fiction fans react to a new Doctor Who episode, and you get the idea.
There seems to be a misconception about legal filings, and the law. Contrary to popular myth, neither are for lawyers, only. Yes, you have to be a lawyer to practice law, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to be interested in the law or legal documents. You don’t have to be a lawyer to have an opinion on laws, or legal documents, either. You may misunderstand a decision, or misstate the importance of a case, but doing so is no different than misunderstanding any other decision, or misstating the importance of any other event. The art of law is no different than the art of philosophy, geology, history, or computer programming.
What happens in the courts has a profound impact on all of us. If Congress passes laws, and the Executive Branch implements these laws, it is the Courts that refine the laws—ensuring that the laws are applied consistently, and adhere to basic principles on which the nation is formed.
Think of law as a statue. Congress, acting on its own or based on the demands of the populace, decides it wants a new statue. If enough members of Congress agree, it writes up a specification for the statue, and provides funding to create it.
The Executive Branch of the government, via its agencies, takes these specifications and formulates a plan for creating the statue. Once the first draft of the plan is complete, the relevant agency submits the plan to the master architect/bean counter, otherwise known as the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB checks that the statue implementation plan is cost effective, and won’t piss off the master sculpture (i.e. the President). If the plan passes muster, the agency submits it to the people for comment. Commentary flows in that ranges from the sublime to the inane. How much impact the commentary has depends on any number of factors, including the impetus of creation, and which raw resource dealer has the best lobbyist. Eventually, the agency finalizes the plan and sends it and the raw materials off to the minions to create the statue.
Lo, and behold, here is the statue.
The law is art, and art is always in the eye of the beholder. The people may not agree with how the statue looks. One person may think its too crude; another may think it varies from the specifications too much; a third may deem it blasphemous and demand it be taken out into a field and blown up with dynamite. If one or more people are personally impacted by the creation of the statue, they may take their artistic disdain to the Courts.
The Courts take up the tools of the legal trade—a dainty chisel and fine sandpaper here, a blow torch there. They’ll hear the arguments of the people and the creators, look at the specifications provided by Congress and the finished work of the agencies, and within the boundaries that constrain their own activities (because it does no one any good to have a Mad Artist suddenly take a sledge hammer to a great piece of art), they’ll decide if the people are wrong, and the work is fine. Or they may decide that the people are correct, and the piece needs work.
It is the Courts, then, who refine the statue. Over time, they brush away the imperfections. Sometimes they may go a little too far, and a repair is necessary. Other times the Courts may disagree on artistic interpretation, or the people may disagree with the Courts, and a higher Court will either confirm an interpretation, or reverse it before any irrevocable action has taken place. Put that blow torch down, and back away slowly.
As time goes by, the statue—the law and its regulations and rules—becomes more rigid and less amenable to change. The legal people call it ‘precedent’ but we can think of it as Monkey Christ. If we sit around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for some legal mind to suggest we might want to be concerned about this new law, regulation, or court decision, we may lose the opportunity to have input, and get stuck with a really ugly piece of work.
So I’m a PACER pusher, as well as junkie. I created a Documents at Burningbird web site to share my legal and other documents with you. I hope to get you hooked, too.