There are times, particularly in movies, tv, or books, when the beleaguered little guy wins a court case via some dramatically discovered technicality. The world rejoices that the “good guy” won, even if it wasn’t on the merits of their argument or overwhelming preponderance of evidence.
Case in point – the Scopes trial. While Scopes was found guilty initially, the decision was overturned, not because the State realized it was stupid to prevent teaching good science in schools. Rather, it was overturned because in Tennessee at the time, juries were supposed to set any fine over $50, and Scopes was fined $100 by a judge.
The problem with this sort of legal nitpickery, is that it’s not only the “good guys” that can use it. It’s not even limited to last minute courtroom shenanigans by attorneys with a charming drawl. Exasperatingly, justices and judges, ostensibly employed for their possession of good sense, have been known to make use of astonishingly ridiculous technicalities in their decisions. The kind of technicalities that require mental gymnastics Cirque du Soleil would snatch up if they were to branch out into bedazzled shit shows. Two such examples are in the news this week.
After hearing arguments Wednesday of this week, the Florida Supreme Court will have to decide whether or not Gary Debaun should be convicted of lying about his HIV status before having sex with a man. The law Debaun violated, passed in 1986, requires HIV positive people to inform partners of their status. This law was written to prevent, or punish, situations exactly like this. However, the case was initially dismissed by the judge, Wayne Miller, who argued that Florida law defines sexual intercourse as being between a man and a woman. The ruling was overturned by a district appeals court, who sent it on to the Florida Supreme Court for a ruling.
Never mind that the law was written in gender neutral language so as to cover all sex acts and orientations. According to Assistant Attorney General Joanne Diez “the lack of a definition of ‘sexual intercourse’ … did not render the statute ambiguous or unclear,” and the state argued that the law was meant to protect citizens “from a public health threat.” Clearly the foresight of those that wrote the law did not realize that a lack of sex ed in schools would lead to such confusion in court. This case is a textbook example of why the law was written, and outdated definitions are standing in the way of the law being carried out as intended.
Also reported this week was the US Supreme Court’s decision not to review a district court’s ruling that firing a mother, Angela Ames, who needed accommodation for breast feeding does not count as sex discrimination. Why? Because in some cases, men can lactate too.
While it’s true that trans men, or yes even cis men are capable of lactation, it does not follow that firing a woman because she is breastfeeding is therefore not sexist. It would still be gender based discrimination if a trans man were fired for needed breast feeding accommodations at work. It could still be argued as sexist if a cis man were to induce lactation to support an infant and were fired for needing pumping breaks at work; it could be perceived as retaliation for breaking gender norms.
So here we are with a case where a new mother, on her first day back to work, ended up forced to resign because she needed a place to pump her breast milk. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, they were only asked to review whether or not an employee must pursue internal complaints before resigning in order to argue that they were discharged unfairly. Ames’ former employer will not be held responsible for their hideous treatment of her, and she is out of appeals.
It is blood boiling to encounter cases where what seems like clear cut wrongdoing is let off the hook on such shoddy technicalities. Can we please leave such deliberately obtuse interpretations to legislators, who at least are not appointed for life?