by Judge Steve Halsey,
Wright County District Court
At some point in our childhoods we told a parent or teacher, “That’s not fair!” They probably replied, “Well, dear, life isn’t always fair.” In court, on occasion, lawyers will argue that a certain result for their client is simply “not fair.” Usually they are not arguing that a certain result is not allowed within the bounds of existing law, or its reasonable interpretation, but that, given their client’s “extraordinary circumstances,” it is simply not fair that they must pay a debt to a creditor or pay child support or pay spousal maintenance or spend some time in jail or go to prison. I am certain that some litigants leave court thinking, “That judge wasn’t fair.” They should be asking themselves, “Was the process fair?”
In civil cases not involving the government there are usually two or more individual citizens involved in a dispute in which one is seeking an award of money from the other or possession of real property (residential or commercial building), or a marriage dissolution or child custody dispute. Many of these money damages disputes start in conciliation (small claims) court. Often it is a collection agency seeking to collect an unpaid credit card bill or medical bills. These disputes most often are simply a matter of contract law in which the plaintiff seeking to collect the debt must prove that there is a contract, that the defendant breached the contract by failing to pay the plaintiff, and that the damages are a certain amount. Defendants often attempt to present a defense of inability to pay due to unfortunate circumstances, such as unemployment, illness, or divorce. They argue that it is simply “not fair” that they have to pay the debt. However, the judge must disregard these circumstances unless they constitute a valid defense within the contract or under Minnesota law.
In sentencing in felony criminal cases the judge is required to following the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, unless there are legally-supportable reasons to depart or vary from the guidelines. For example, the presumptive sentence could be 48 months in prison for a residential burglary conviction. In considering whether the defendant will be given the presumptive sentence, the judge may not consider these factors: race, gender, impact on employment, marital status or educational attainment. It is simply a matter of equal justice: those who are married or employed or in college should not receive a less harsh consequence for a particular criminal offense than those not so situated.
Recently, my colleague, Washington County District Court Judge Greg Galler, wrote this about fairness:
“What does fairness mean? Is it really just a matter of winning or losing? Most of the people who come to court understand that judges work hard to decide cases fairly based on the law and the evidence. However, for some, like my former clients, fairness only means favorable outcome. If they win, they think the judge was fair. If they don’t win, they are sure the system is rigged against them. They remain forever convinced in the righteousness of their own cause and in the complete lack of merit for the opposition. This is unrealistic.”
In summary, the decisions that judges must make are not based upon consideration of what the general public or even the specific litigants would find is “fair.” Decisions are based upon application of the law to the facts as found by the judge or jury. And certainly what one person finds to be a fair result may only be because they believe they “won” the case, not whether the process was fair. Just as often what their opponent in court believes very unfair may only be based upon them “losing” the case. Fairness and justice lie in the process, not the result or verdict.