Do all lawyers get asked by their non-lawyer relatives during election season, "What is a 'rule of law" judge, anyway?" For what it's worth, my stock answer is that all judges are constitutionally required to be "rule of law" judges, and that to me the phrase means that sometimes the law requires judges to make rulings that they would rather not make. It's hard to think of a case that illustrates the point better than Law v. Siegel, a case decided unanimously last week by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of a cheating bankrupt debtor (Law) over a conscientious attorney. On the facts, it sure seems like all nine Justices would have been inclined to decide the other way -- but for the (rule of)law. Volokh Conspiracy's Eugene Volokh agrees, calling the case " a small counter-illustration to the cynical assumptions about the Justices just voting their ideologies." Ronald Mann at SCOTUSblog describes the facts this way:
The case involves a bankrupt (Law) who tried to keep money from his creditors by claiming that his home was subject to a fictional lien. Law’s activity in support of this fiction was remarkable; as the Court’s opinion notes, it extended (according to the courts below) to the filing of fictitious pleadings that he forged in the name of the fictitious lienholder. By the end of the day, the trustee in the bankruptcy proceeding (Siegel) spent several hundred thousand dollars proving that Law’s claim was wholly fabricated. Outraged by the conduct, the bankruptcy court (following established Ninth Circuit precedent) held that the trustee could collect the expenses of that litigation out of the funds Law received from the sale of his homestead. Ordinarily, those funds would have been exempt under California’s homestead exemption (which differs in no material way from the homestead exemptions of every other state).
Mann says the case presented a stark choice between the plain language of the Bankruptcy Code and the "understandable impulse" to affirm the capacity of the bankruptcy courts to dole out stern punishment for such remarkably deplorable conduct. Plain language won.
So the next question that the relatives will ask is something like, "You mean the rule of law and justice are not necessarily the same thing?" Time to pop open another cold one.