Friday, February 4, 2011

Indianappeals, IN

Strange.  I never would have imagined that events in Indianapolis would have any direct affect on my life.  But that's how it's turning out.  Two appeals of two quite different types were held in Indianapolis the last two months.  The outcome of USC's appeal at NCAA headquarters two weeks ago will have a huge effect on the football team I root for.  More directly, the Indiana Supreme Court in December heard oral arguments on a case that will decide whether we will continue to be allowed to rent out our house in Northwest Indiana, which would have a significant impact on our income. I found that Indianapolis had more appeal to me when I was there to see the museums and the zoo and when we ran in their half-marathon than it does as a venue for legal appeals.

Regarding USC's appeal to the NCAA, I have two words:  Fight On!

About the case in the Indiana Supreme Court, it is the only time I can recall any court case actually having a direct personal affect on me.  Like most people, my contact with the courts is generally limited to the occasional traffic citation and periodic calls for jury service.  Neither of those has ever inspired much trust in the court system.  I do not call it the "legal" system or the "justice" system, because law and justice seem to have little relevance to the outcomes.

Some people in the town where I own a vacation house decided they didn't like vacation rentals and got the town to sue another owner (Siwinski) who was renting out his house, despite the fact that vacation rentals have always been common there, the town ordinances make no mention of rentals of any sort, and there was no previous history of them ever attempting to enforce this interpretation.  In truth, it was really a feud between Siwinski and his neighbor, an attorney who has a law office in her house.  It was a personal feud that got out of hand and got blown all out of proportion; where the town took sides in what should have been a private dispute.  The town got lucky with an incompetent local judge.  That ruling was overturned in favor of Siwinski by the Indiana Appeals Court.  The town appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which should have refused to even hear the case, but accepted it for some incomprehensible reason.

If you are curious or masochistic, you can see video of the oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court here:  Personally, I thought both attorneys and most of the Supreme Court justices appeared incompetent and ignorant both of the case and of relevant law.

I really never wanted to go to court, and now that a case there directly affects me, I am more convinced than ever that going to court is a baaaaad idea. My personal involvement was in trying to keep both parties out of court.  I pleaded with both sides to find a way to work together to solve the real problems rather than both wasting time and money in court.  Besides, I am convinced that is the only Christian thing to do.  I talked to Siwinski and other rental owners and I talked to the town council and several officials.  I told both sides that the only people who win in court are the attorneys and that there are better ways to work out differences.  Neither side would listen.  4 years and about $150,000 later, I think that point has been proven.  There will be no winners.  Any useful result could have been better achieved in a different way.

The biggest loser of all though is justice itself.  What I have learned is that the government can ruin you in court without having any legal basis.  Even if they lose (as they should) just making Siwinski defend himself has cost him more than the fine and the profits he was making.  If you are accused of a crime, simply the accusation alone can ruin you, even if you are completely innocent.  Being found "not guilty" (and innocence is no guarantee of that) will be a hollow victory after your finances and reputation have been ruined in the process of defending yourself.  In reality, it made no sense for Siwinski to defend himself in court. He could and should have settled.  The cost was more than it's worth.  The reason he is fighting seems to be that he can afford to and hates to lose to the neighbor.

What I find frightening and depressing is finding that although the law itself was very, very, clearly in Siwinski's favor, it gets interpreted by judges who might as well be flipping coins or examing their magic 8-balls when they make their decisions.  The outcome is virtually random.  Any connection between a court verdict and actual truth or justice is only slightly better than coincidence (maybe worse).  Worse yet, in Indiana, the local judge runs for election and has to curry favor with local voters, so a case between a local town and an owner from out of state is not going to get her unbiased judgment.

Defenders of American institutions would like to claim that the ability of the system to make corrections in the appeals system is proof that it works.  The Indiana Supreme Court hasn't yet ruled and might possibly even make the right decision.  But even if they do, justice that takes four years and $100,000 to defend against what is not even a misdemeanor is not justice at all.  The function of the courts in the American system is not merely to punish the guilty, but perhaps more importantly to protect the innocent against abuse by tyrannical governmernt (and all government tends to tyranny if it can get away with it).  The local judge totally failed in that duty in this case.  Seeing the court system up close and personal has been very disappointing and disillusioning. 
I guess, in a way, I should be glad that the "wheels of justice" have ground so slowly, because in the meantime, I have been able to continue renting my house for the last four years while the town fights with Siwinski.  Siwinski's neighbor obviously doesn't feel that way though.  And Siwinski has his house listed for sale and just wants out of the whole thing.

I try to maintain a philosphic or religious outlook on this.  It's only money.  My life is not about money.  If I put my trust in God, none of this matters at all.  It's a good lesson about not putting my trust in the material things of this world, which can be snatched away at any time on any whim of those in power.  The fact that I have two houses means I'm obviously not poverty stricken.  It seems pretty spoiled of me to worry about having two houses when most people would be happy to have just one to worry about.  I will not go broke either way.  And of course, it most definitely reinforced my basic religious viewpoint that going to law is not the Christian thing to do if there is any way to avoid it.  But still, I can't help but feel a gut wrenching churn of injustice being done.

Indy, I loved running your half-marathon, but right now, you are not on my happy list.

Oh, and USC:  Sorry, but your season ticket prices have gotten too high anyway.  You'll have to fight on without me.


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for those words about the courts. I've seen it first hand a couple of times on real estate cases and even in the criminal case after my husband was assaulted. Lawyers lying about not being able to attend in the last minute, making you and your witnesses come for nothing, or process servers that had never served you, conveniently having business out of state, thereby avoiding testifying, and on and on. They were all horribly disappointing experiences for me. No way could I have put it better than you did here. Thank you.--Inger

  2. And the frustrating thing is that this is supposed to be Justice....It will be interesting to see how both play out.