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A service for global professionals · Tuesday, May 28, 2024 · 715,123,848 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

Justice Matters commentary: Baseball analogies only partially explain what judges do

Spring has always been one of my favorite times of year. Winter is ending, trees and flowers are coming into bud, and, best of all, baseball season is getting back into swing! For many years, I have traveled to Florida to watch spring training. Of course, I also love explaining to the public what judges do. But I’ve learned, while sports analogies can be helpful for certain judicial concepts, they can’t fully capture the depth of the job of judging.

During his confirmation hearing nearly two decades ago, United States Chief Justice John Roberts famously tried to compare the job of judging with that of a baseball umpire. He pointed out that, like judges, umpires do not make the rules but apply them; like judges, umpires are not the main players in the game ... they call balls and strikes rather than pitch or bat; and, like judges, nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire. I would add that, like judges, umpires are supposed to make sure the playing field is level, with both teams being given an equal chance of winning.

All of that is true, but judging is so much more complicated than that. Much of what judges do involves tough calls – issues that are not clearly fair or foul, safe or out, or a ball or strike. The “triers of fact” – jurors or judges, depending on the case – must decide the facts. They observe the witnesses and decide who is most credible and what testimony to believe. 

Another basic misunderstanding is how a case properly comes before a judge. I find a number of people think they can share with me their legal woes and I have the power to just fix it for them. But, just as an umpire cannot intervene in a game he has not been hired to work, no judge – not even the state’s chief justice – can insert himself or herself into a legal issue. Just as baseball has rules, so do the courts – including rules of procedure that guide who can file what lawsuit where and against whom. Only once a case has been filed properly can a judge be assigned to hear the case. This happens daily in our local courts, at both the municipal and the county level. 

In court, the players – i.e. the litigants and the lawyers – know a whole lot more than the judge about a case’s “backstory,” but rules of evidence and procedure are designed to make sure the case is fair for everyone involved. Witnesses are prevented, for example, from testifying about “hearsay,” or something the witnesses didn’t see or hear or experience first-hand. They also are not allowed to speculate, or guess about things. In issuing the final judgment, the trial judge must apply the rules and law to the facts as they ultimately are presented on the record developed in court and not relying on anything that might be outside the record.

After the case is decided at a local court, a party who believes a legal error was made can appeal to a higher court, usually the Missouri Court of Appeals, which has offices in the eastern, southern and western districts of our state. The only time I can get involved in a case is if the case is properly appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, where I work.

The work of appellate judges is much like the work of officials reviewing video replay screens at Major League Baseball’s headquarters in New York. The players don’t get to have a do-over. Instead, the folks in New York decide if the umpire on the field made the correct decision. Likewise, appellate judges don’t have the case retried. No witnesses come to testify, and no evidence is presented in our court. Instead, our review is limited to the record of pleadings, testimony and other evidence filed in the circuit court. 

Like umpires, appellate judges must set aside our personal feelings and rule objectively in following rules of law and procedure. It’s not about who we may like better, or who we may be more sympathetic toward, or what policy decision we might have made were we in the very different job of a legislator or an executive branch official. Instead, we are limited to deciding whether a legal error occurred based on our constitution and laws – even when our decision may not be one we like personally.

When the decision of an umpire on the field is appealed to New York, the game is stopped; for the fans, it may seem like a long time before a decision is reached. The work of our courts is also not fast-paced, especially at the appellate level. We are diligent and methodical as we pore over the documents filed in a case; do hours of legal research to help us decide the case; and then spend days or weeks or sometimes even months working as a group to make sure our opinions are written clearly, explaining our reasoning.

Most of the time, judges – like umpires – labor in obscurity. And that’s appropriate, because cases should be about giving people their day (or week or month) in court, and the focus should be on the ultimate decision of the legal issues. Judges come and go, just as players and umpires come and go, but court proceedings remain the same, rooted in rules everyone can appreciate. In that way, the tradition of our courts is every bit as part of our culture as America’s pastime. Play ball!

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