Bob Sparks: On occasion, judges can surprise both sides

Last week, a federal judge issued a ruling serving as a perfect illustration of how the judicial system should work. The case left one side glad and the other side sad, but the reasoning behind the opinion demonstrates why thoughtful jurists deserve our respect.

On April 22, District Judge Mark Walker dismissed part of a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association (FEA). The FEA challenged a 2011 law that tied teacher evaluations to student performance. A very real possibility exists that teachers could be evaluated on the performance of students not even in their classes.

Most fair-minded individuals would sympathize with any teacher finding him or her in such a position. I certainly would.

But this case is not about the facts. Instead, it is about the limits on federal authority created 225 years ago. Can a federal court supersede a state legislature’s authority to create policy for that state’s education?

Policies that may be unpopular or have unintended consequences are not necessarily unconstitutional. In Judge Walker’s opinion, he wrote, “despite serious flaws identified by the plaintiffs (FEA) with the system, the Legislature could rationally conclude that such evaluations further the state’s legitimate purpose.”

Liberal jurists have a reputation of “legislating from the bench” and replacing the views and authority of Congress or state legislatures with their own. Conservatives or libertarians are known as believers of a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

In other words, states are free to govern their states unless the Constitution or case law defines federal supremacy. For instance, that is why state or local laws limiting abortions or access to guns are frequently overturned.

Judge Walker ruled in precisely the way a conservative judge would be expected to rule. Despite his personal misgivings of the policy involved, he stayed true to the Constitution.

The only problem is he is not a conservative. Judge Mark Walker was appointed to the federal bench on Feb. 16, 2012 by President Barack Obama. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, 94-0.

It is beyond argument that our nation has become polarized between right vs. left, Republican vs. Democrat. It is refreshing to see examples of the judicial branch showing restraint despite personal views.

In a high profile case last week, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a Michigan case. The Court, by a 6-2 margin, (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself) held that states, even by popular referendum, may decide for themselves whether to use racial preferences in university admissions.

Voting with the strict constructionist wing of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas was Justice Stephen Breyer. A reliable member of the liberal voting bloc, Breyer provided sound logic for taking a different path than liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

“The Constitution… foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of (race-conscious) programs,” he wrote.

This wasn’t the first time Breyer found himself on the same side with Thomas and Scalia on a controversial case. Anyone in Florida remember Bush v. Gore?

In the 2000 recount case, the Court held the recount process ordered by the Florida Supreme Court violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. While most only remember a 5-4 decision, the Court found by a 7-2 margin that the Florida recount violated the 14th Amendment. The final remedy was closer with the recount being stopped by the 5-4 vote.

Liberals are not the only ones putting the Constitution over personal philosophy. While liberals consider Scalia the boogey man, he has on occasion disappointed conservatives.

In the 1989 case of Texas v. Gregory Lee Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that burning the American flag is a protected form of speech. Scalia joined with liberal lions Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, concluding that flag-burning is a protected form of speech under the First Amendment.

The most recent example belongs to conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. Outrage remains among conservatives and Republicans, who are still sore over his vote and opinion effectively legalizing the Affordable Care Act.

In any civil case, one side will win and one will lose. All we can hope for are thoughtful judges who make decisions based on the law and the Constitution. The judicial branch is our best hope to leave the politics at the door.

Bob Sparks is a Tallahassee-based business and political consultant. From 2003 to 2006, he served as Director of External Affairs for the Florida Attorney General. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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