Jarndyce v Jarndyce is perhaps the most famous fictional court case in history. For those who are not English majors or regular Masterpiece Theatre viewers, the case is central to the story-line of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, his 1852 novel. In it, a typical Dickensian cast of characters is enmeshed in a case before the Chancery Court in England that stretches back to before most of them were born. It involves a will, since the Chancery Court system of the time (which Dickens and others proposed badly needed reform) was where such civil matters involving documents such as wills were heard.
The bureaucracy had evolved by the Victorian era—the Courts were set-up in the early 12th century— to such a point that a case could drag out for years and years. At the end of Bleak House, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is resolved—but so many years have passed, and so much bureaucracy has taken its toll, that there is nothing left for those whose families originally brought the suit. The case is settled, but no one benefits, except the bureaucracy itself which has eaten up all the money.
I was reminded of Jarndyce when reviewing the story on Page 6 of this issue on the Palmer case in Washington, DC. The case was originally brought in 2009—five years ago. That is not to say there was no victory in Palmer. Quite the opposite— Palmer, which was built on others, including the Supreme Court cases of Heller and McDonald, is a huge victory for all gun owners, for the Second Amendment Foundation (parent of Women & Guns) and for Alan Gura, the attorney for SAF.
However, it does bring to mind Dickens’ fictional case because of the length of time it took to arrive at an opinion. Victory though it is, the District has already won a 90-day stay of the decision, half the amount of time for which it originally asked. Other cases involving gun rights have dragged similarly. When cities and municipalities first began suing gun manufacturers in the early 1990s, many of the cases never even went to court—but there was plenty of time and money spent on them anyway. Some cities were even solicited by outside law firms, hoping to share in the profits of any victory.
Not too long ago, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent his own money to send private investigators and operators around the country, particularly in the South. Bloomberg was hoping to catch gun dealers in so-called straw purchases, and either force the shops to close in their wake, or spend money and time defending themselves in court. Some of the stores ensnared by Bloomberg’s minions did, essentially, take the deal, and close, regardless of whether they could have eventually proven themselves blameless legally.
Cities, such as DC and Chicago, do not have to account to their residents how much money and time they are spending on these gun cases, but perhaps they should be held to account. If the municipalities believe that they are in the right and that their anti-gun rights positions make their citizens safer, then by all means, they should vigorously defend their positions in court.
But, as many of these cases drag on and on, it would seem wise for them to be reviewed by someone or some collection of someones to determine who benefits—the cities themselves and their populace, or just a bureaucracy and the city employees working on the case in various capacities. The money for these cases comes from somewhere on both sides. In the instance of pro-gun suits, they are largely funded by individual donations in relatively small amounts to the groups (such as SAF) bringing suit.
In the case of the cities—well, the money comes from their own coffers and occasionally (as was the case in some of the suits against manufacturers), from well-funded anti-gun groups, such as the Brady Center, which rely not on individual donations, but from large grants from charitable trusts. The coffers of the municipalities, however, are filled by the citizens one way or another. City taxes come from—duh!—the taxpayers, and monies the city might receive from the state in which they are located, comes from state taxes and rates, which, again—duh!—start out as payments from citizens. In the case of DC, the funding comes from the Federal government, in effect making every tax- and rate-paying citizen of the US a funder of the suits.
Perhaps that wouldn’t even be so bad, if the cities didn’t deliberately seek to prolong the cases for as long as possible. And as Martin Luther King famously observed, “justice delayed is justice denied.” The money is one thing, but the delay of resolution has more than a monetary impact. Britain’s Chancery Court system was eventually reformed, in large measure due to Dickens’ efforts to spotlight the waste and even absurdity the system had come to represent. It would be nice if residents of the cities engaged in these suits, as well as state taxpayers, began asking some of the same questions Dickens did.