Trump plays with a truck like I would have… when I was seven. (Generated by IJG JPEG Library)
We’ve heard legal opinions and political opinions about TransAm Trucking v. Department of Labor , the “frozen truck driver” case that Senate Democrats highlighted during the Neil Gorsuch confirmation hearings.
You know who we haven’t heard from? Truck drivers.
Their opinion is important. One convoluted line of reasoning I’ve heard from Democrats is: truckers voted for Trump –> Gorsuch hurt a trucker –> truck driving Trump voters will turn on the president because he nominated a person who puts law over truckers –> or something.
Well, here at Above the Law, we’ve heard from truck drivers. They have legal opinions too. After reading our story on TransAm, self-professed truck drivers reached out to us. One burning question was on their mind:
If he was out of gas, how did he drive the truck away? Something missing here. The case says the gas gauge read below empty. But there had to be some gas.
The facts of the case, and perhaps my summary of the case, were kind of confusing. Truck driver Alphonse Maddin pulled over when he “ran out of gas.” But later, he unhitched the trailer and drove away, prompting his firing. I appreciate how many truck drivers hammered in on this apparent factual inconsistency.
Here’s the potential resolution, from the facts as stated by the Tenth Circuit:
At approximately 11:00 p.m., Maddin pulled to the side of the highway because he was unable to find the TransAm-mandated fuel station and his gas gauge was below empty. When he attempted to pull back onto the road ten minutes later, he discovered the brakes on the trailer had locked up because of the frigid temperatures.
It would appear Maddin pulled over before fully out of gas. The brakes froze while he was waiting for further instructions. Then he unhitched the trailer and drove the cab on what little gas was left, ostensibly to a non-TransAm-approved gas station.
Does that clear things up?
Your story does not make sense, Elie. And, by the way, TransAm’s trucks don’t use gas. They use diesel fuel.
Sorry man, my Tonka trucking tutorial didn’t cover that.
Truckers aren’t focused on the gas situation as a mere technicality. Their legal reasoning sounds close to a “contributory negligence” standard. For their perspective, if Maddin put himself in a position to run out of gas, then he caused the events that led to his own firing:
If it ran out of fuel was this not the fault of the driver? If the weather was bad and temps were going to be below zero I would make sure I had fuel.
Number one, the driver should have made sure that he and his truck were prepared for the trip and the weather. Making sure that you have enough fuel is one of those things. He could have called in well before his fuel situation became critical and gotten fuel. Any company would prefer to spend an extra 10 to 20 bucks for out-of-network fuel instead of a couple hundred for a service call or wrecker. Also, a driver needs to ensure that he has appropriately warm clothing just in case he gets stranded in severe weather.
In fact, that last guy went further in ascribing negligence — or at least incompetence — on Maddin’s part:
Second, the frozen brakes. This is something that a driver can handle without need for a service call. Often enough, rocking the truck in reverse will do it, and if not, banging on them with a hammer will release them. This is something every driver should be able to do.
Here’s the thing, these fact-based analyses have literally nothing to do with the case by the time it comes to the Tenth Circuit. The Tenth Circuit is an appellate court. The trial court, the “finders of fact,” determined that Maddin’s truck was out of gas and broken down. All the Tenth Circuit had to decide is what the law requires TransAm and Maddin to do in such a situation; they can’t review if that situation in fact existed. The panel ruled that the law provided Maddin the option he took, and Gorsuch disagreed.
BUT… this discussion is also why it’s generally unfair to pin a “bad outcome” on an appellate judge during the political process of a confirmation hearing. Maddin’s actual situation, the danger he faced in fact, might well have been mitigated or aggravated based on facts that the Tenth Circuit simply wasn’t allowed to consider. Gorsuch’s dissent simply would not have required Maddin to sit there and die . However, the majority’s opinion doesn’t require Maddin to be MacGyver to keep his job under the law.
A key part of Gorsuch’s legal analysis was on the question whether TransAm required Maddin to “operate” the vehicle, in a legal sense, when they ordered him to sit in the truck until help arrived. Truckers who focused on this part of the opinion generally sided with Maddin. This comment is the best example:
I am not a lawyer but I am a truck driver and if one were to argue with Gorsuch on whether or not Maddin operated a vehicle or not, he clearly refused to operate or drive the trailer (yes, we DO drive the trailer!) because the trailer was unsafe to drive. The trailer IS a vehicle, is it not? It’s licensed as such. Gorsuch is wrong on the law! Case closed!
I gotta say, if truckers were judges, we’d have a lot more “case closed!” and a lot less “remanded in part, reversed in part.”
Listening to all these truck drivers, I’m struck by one thing: it’s so important that people feel like the judicial process is “fair.” People can accept cases that turn on the “facts,” they can accept cases that turn on the “law,” but they cannot abide cases that turn on the “party” of jurists.
Is there anything about the Senate confirmation process that gives people confidence that appellate review is something other than politics by other means? When Merrick Garland can’t even get a hearing? When the questions for those that do are all about their politics?
Seems like our whole confirmation process is “Borked.”
Earlier : The ‘Frozen Truck Driver’ Case Democratic Senators Are Hanging On Neil Gorsuch
Elie Mystal is an editor of Above the Law and the Legal Editor for More Perfect . He can be reached @ElieNYC on Twitter, or at firstname.lastname@example.org . He will resist.