Postville, Iowa Immigration Raid
Linda Greenhouse: Drama Queen

Law v. Facts in Bloch v. Frischholz

Bloch v. Frischholz (here) is a great case illustrating issue framing.  Should one frame the issue using law, or facts?

Easterbrooks frames the case using law, and disposes of the case in six pages.  Truth it, Bloch was not a difficult case. 

In Bloch, a Jewish plaintiff sued money damages after her condo board told her that she could not place a mezuzah on her door.  The reason?  A rule she had voted in favor of provided that "[m]ats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort" may not be placed outside owners' doors.  Pretty simple, right?

The plaintiff wanted the court to believe that the condo people were anti-Semites.  But people who had crucifixes on their doorways were also told to remove them.  No one was allowed to put any trinket - even if it had religious significance - over her doorway. 

So how can one be anti-Semitic when he simply requires a Jewish person to follow the same rules as everyone else?  If Christians had been allowed to keep their crucifixes, then plaintiffs would have had a case.  If secular people were allowed to hang their "Go Obama!" signs over their doors, then plaintiffs would have had a case.  But here, everyone was treated equally - equally petty, I'd say.

Now maybe the condo board should have granted a religious exemption. If a mezuzah is so important to someone; if it's part of their cultural and religious heritage; why not grant them an exemption?  Of course, as anyone who has dealt with a condo board or homeowners' association will tell you: Board members are petty tyrants.  They are people whose sole power in life is creating rules such as, "Do not keep trash cans outside you home after 5 p.m. on trash days."  Do you really expect to reason with such people?   They have nothing better going on in life - no other power - other than creating stupid rules. 

Anyhow, the rule was clear.  Yet the plaintiff sued.  She properly lost.

Judge Diane Wood dissents.  In her dissent, she spends several pages discussing why the mezuzah is important to Jews, and why the condo board was cruel to deny Jews the privilege of placing a mezuzah over their doorway.

Wood had to emphasize the facts because the plaintiffs did not have a strong legal case - or even a weak one.

Ultimately Wood's view lost.  But with another panel, her view may have carried the law.  So sometimes it's best to present a compelling set of facts, even when your legal case is weak, because there are people like Diane Wood out there.  Lest I be accused of partisanship, I'll note that pretty much every conservative judge in the country falls for a compelling set of facts, the law be damned, when prosectors appeal.