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January 07, 2013

Royce Lamberth and the art of judicial writing

#Judge Royce Lamberth displays both clarity and sympathy in his latest ruling, demonstrating once again why he's a Suits & Sentences favorite.

In a 64-page decision, Lamberth dismissed most of a case brought by a grieving Washington, D.C . woman whose 16-year-old daughter was slain by thugs in a 2010 drive-by shooting. The mother, Nardyne Jefferies, says her daughter Brishell Jones died as a consequence of inactions by a variety of state and federal agencies and officials.

Observe, here, how Lamberth writes with commendable simplicity and directness, offering sympathy that somehow feels at least a little better than the cold comfort provided by the typical nostrums.

"Plaintiff is obviously heartbroken over the tragic death of her only daughter. She feels like her daughter’s death was preventable, and that the District could have and should have done more. She wants to see changes made to a system that, she feels, fails to protect vulnerable communities. Her frustration is understandable."

And observe, as well, how the judge manages to combine both genuine sympathy with a rigorous line of reasoning:

"When presented with heartbreaking facts such as these—an innocent bystander stuck down in her youth, by remorseless thugs pursuing a trifling vendetta—a jury might be overcome with emotion and look for someone to hold financially accountable. But police officers cannot prevent every crime. By the very nature of their jobs, often there will be dire consequences when officers choose, what was in hindsight, the “wrong” path.

Police officers make quick, delicate decisions; to function, they cannot have every choice scrutinized. To prevent the threat of liability from crippling police and emergency services, the public duty doctrine creates a very high bar for suing the government for negligence. If the Court held that the District could be civilly liable for damages in this case, it could create some perverse incentives and interfere with the effective policing of the District."



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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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