When I did my graduate work at Auburn University, I became close friends with an economics instructor there, John Sophocleus, as well as his wife Theresa. Part of the friendship was based upon our mutual interest in economics, but also I took an interest in an ongoing issue that began to dominate their lives.
John and Theresa lived on U.S. 280 just outside of Auburn, and before they bought the house, they asked the Alabama Department of Transportation if the place was in danger of being taken as part of a highway-widening project. The Alabama DOT said it was not, so they purchased it and soon John built a spacious garage/work area so he could pursue his work of restoring classic cars.
As one might expect, the DOT double-crossed him and the Sophocleuses were told their property would be taken by eminent domain. And, as one might expect, the DOT offered him a price that would have been about a third of the fair market value. Naturally, John and Theresa appealed the low-ball appraisal to the courts, but that did not sit well with the authorities.
For about three years, the State of Alabama engaged in a series of threats and lies aimed at driving them from their home. With my wife and me being regular guests at their home, we remember what they experienced, including the harassing phone calls and strange people showing up on their property at odd hours. (The authorities even had the pipes to the Sophocleus’ septic tank broken as a tactic to force them out of the house, even though the law clearly stated that until the appraisal matter was resolved, John and Theresa were legally entitled to live there.)
The courts delayed, but a few days before Christmas, 1998, the government told the couple that they either had to move out immediately or face fines of $10,000 a day. The reason given by the authorities (under oath in court, I might add) was that they needed to raze the house quickly in order to keep highway construction going apace.
What the Alabama DOT authorities said and what they actually did were two different things. The house stood for another nine months because the government used it as a place for highway workers to live. That is correct. They lied in court under oath.
To make matters worse, the authorities denied later in court (under oath, of course) that they were housing highway workers at all, essentially calling John and Theresa liars. However, Alabama Power continued to send the electric bill to the couple as though they still were living there, and there was plenty of electricity being used, but not by my friends.
Furthermore, a number of us observed seeing people engaging in the act of living in the house, and all of us signed affidavits (under oath), but the difference was that we were telling the truth. In the spring of 1999, my wife and I went to a second-hand furniture store and the proprietor tried to sell us couches that he said were being used “in that house where they kept the highway workers.” We declined the purchase.
Since 280 is a federal highway, John and Theresa filed suit in federal court. As Auburn University economist David Laband (a close friend of John and Theresa and my former department chair) wrote:
Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus sued ALDoT, arguing that the taking was unconstitutional, since the state did not live up to the expressed public purpose used to justify the seizure and that therefore ownership should revert to them. The first federal judge to consider motions in the case, Susan Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, issued three summary judgments in favor of the Sophocleuses.
The Alabama authorities were unhappy with Judge Walker’s rulings and managed to go judge shopping to Judge Myron Thompson’s courtroom. Thompson clearly was hostile to John and Theresa and claimed that this was a state issue, not a federal one.
However, as Prof. Laband wrote:
But as Alabama State Code 18-1A-et seq. makes clear, as affirmed by Judge Walker, the correct venue for plaintiffs in a civil rights case is the federal judiciary. By an 8—0 ruling (Justice John Roberts had not yet joined the Court) the Supreme Court in 2005 remanded the case back to the district court for remedy.
After stalling four full years, Judge Thompson and the judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to admit the earlier call had been blown and reiterated the previously overturned position. Once again, Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus will appeal to the Supreme Court.
One would think that once the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on something, the lower courts would obey the ruling. Think again. As Prof. Laband noted, Thompson just ignored the ruling and has refused to hear the case.
At this point, one can imagine the frustration that John and Theresa were feeling. (I often have listened to that frustration in my many telephone calls to John, and he and his wife, while being highly-principled people, nonetheless have had to deal with being given a judge’s back of the hand.)
They filed a petition again, but just this past week, the Supreme Court decided that it no longer wanted to abide even by its own rulings and ignored what it had previously said. That’s right. The government changed the rules without even going through the pretense of using the proper legal channels.
So, John and Theresa stand outside the gates and are denied justice. Throughout the entire ordeal, the authorities offered them money as a “settlement,” and John always turned them down. He wanted his day in court. He wanted an important constitutional issue to be decided where the law says it should be decided, but the “justices” decided that they would make up the rules as they go along.
To most people, this is just an insignificant property dispute in which someone wanted more money for their about-to-be-seized home than the government wanted to pay. But it never was about the money; it was about principle; it was about right and wrong.
A few years ago, I told John that the courts really did not know how to handle men and women of principle, and he was being regarded as a foreign object in the bloodstream. Since then, I have been involved in a number of civil and criminal cases and have concluded, to my sorrow, that there are very few people left employed by the “justice” system who care about justice at all.
Where are the judges who actually follow the law? They certainly are not in federal court, and CERTAINLY not in most state courts. Prosecutors? Give me a break. People have documented time and again instances of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, and I hold no hope at all that our system can be “reformed.”
I’m not sure what my friends are going to do. A federal judge refuses to obey the law and the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that it will do nothing about it.
When Judge Roy Moore placed the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court building, it was Thompson who ruled that the display had to be removed because, in Thompson’s words, Moore was “thumbing his nose” at previous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, when faced with a Supreme Court ruling he did not like, Thompson did what he darn well pleased.
This is the state of law in this country. Yes, there are good people who want to see right being done, but they just happen not to be employed as judges and prosecutors. No society can survive this kind of corruption, and ours will not survive, either, at least as a place where free people can live.
William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.