Football and Judicial Politics

208388_football_close-upMy colleague Joanna Shepherd and I are working on a project analyzing judicial voting on election law cases in state court. Although there is a sophisticated literature about judicial politics and political influences on judges, there actually is little quantitative work looking at political influences on judges in explicitly political cases, such as election contests, redistricting, and ballot access questions. Thinking generally about judicial politics for this project gives me a different perspective on the state court review of the NFL suspensions of two players from the Minnesota Vikings.

Last September, the NFL suspended Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Minnesota Vikings for four games each after they failed drug tests. The two star defensive tackles, who together comprise Minnesota’s “Williams Wall,” tested positive for bumetanide, a prescription diuretic banned under the NFL collective bargaining agreement as a masking agent for steroids. After exhausting the appeals process with the NFL, the two Williams’ and the NFL Players Association challenged the suspensions in Minnesota state court.

Here’s the judicial politics angle: The Minnesota district court that heard the Williams’ claims issued a temporary restraining order last December immediately after the Williams’ final internal appeals with the NFL were rejected. The TRO postponed any suspension until the end of the 2008 season, which kept both Williams’ on the field and helped ensure Minnesota a playoff spot last year. The NFL removed the case to federal court, which then dismissed all but two state law claims and remanded those two claims back to state court. This summer, on remand, the Minnesota district court issued another TRO, blocking the NFL from enforcing its suspensions of the Williams’ until after the upcoming 2009 season. I don’t know enough about Minnesota labor law, the NFL collective bargaining agreement, or the relevant preemption issues to assess the state court TROs that helped both Williams’ postpone their suspensions for almost two full seasons, but one commentator who considered these issues noted that even the issuing judge expressed doubts about the likelihood that the Williams’ claims would prevail on the merits, and at least one Vikings blogger suspected a home-court advantage for the Williams’ on their legal claims.

Of course, I have no real idea whether the Minnesota judge in this case was consciously or subconsciously affected by the possible political consequences of denying the TROs. I have little reason to doubt the integrity of this judge in particular, who I assume has nothing but the best intentions. But it might be reasonable to wonder whether a state judge in his position, who must run for re-election to keep his job, could be influenced by the prospect of hometown football fans unhappy that a judge has effectively sidelined their star players for a quarter of a season. My colleague Joanna Shepherd concludes from her research that state judges are routinely re-elected unless they risk doing something controversial and attract negative publicity. Whether or not this particular judge was consciously affected by the possibility, there’s no doubt that denying the latest TRO and putting Kevin and Pat Williams on the sideline for the beginning of the season, right after the Vikings stirred up fan excitement by signing Brett Favre as their new quarterback, would’ve attracted lots of negative attention. If nothing else, this case offers fed courts professors a very salient example for discussing the risk of a home-court advantage in state court and a foreign defendant’s interest in removal to federal court.

Thinking along the same lines, Gregg Easterbrook, an astute NFL commentator (and brother of Frank), suggested that former NFL wide receiver Plaxico Burress might have fared better in his recent gun possession case, if he had rallied local football support to his side by re-signing with the New York Giants immediately before trial. As Easterbrook put it, “Had Burress remained a Giant, he would have had the most popular organization between Washington and Boston in his corner, and it’s simply human nature that prosecutors and judges might have looked sympathetically upon his case.” Instead, Burress received two years in prison for violating New York’s gun permit law. Football matters intensely to many people, which surely has political consequences. One study finds that public universities with Division I-A football programs receive about six percent more in state appropriations than public universities without football programs, and for those football universities, a victory over an in-state rival is correlated with an additional increase in appropriations the following year. Maybe football shouldn’t matter so much to courts and legislatures, but it seems that sometimes it really does.

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1 Response

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    Or take a less-recent example: Back in 1989, Pete Rose actually succeeded in getting a Hamilton County (includes Cincinnati) trial court judge to issue a TRO against Bart Giamatti and MLB from holding a hearing on Rose’s gambling, finding that Giamatti had “prejudged” Rose’s case–presumably in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, not on any apparent CBA or contractual grounds. Coincidentally or not, the judge was up for reelection the following year. MLB removed to federal court and the case settled when Rose accepted a suspension.