Thursday, October 27, 2016

Kansas Mortgages and the Supreme Court

Cartoon from the St. John County Capital
In the late 1800s, many Kansans like Isaac Werner were struggling with debt.  Most had mortgaged their property as collateral at the time they borrowed money, but drought and lower crop prices made farmers unable to pay their loans, and they faced the possibility of foreclosure.  Merchants also suffered when farmers could not pay for merchandise bought on credit, their businesses furthered jeopardized because customers no longer had cash with which to shop.  Transactions entered into when the future looked bright became tragic for many as times changed.

The Kansas People's Party legislators tried to relieve the economic crisis by retroactively altering the law to impose limits on foreclosures whose mortgages did not give borrowers that relief at the time the documents were signed and the money was loaned.  The Republican majority on the Kansas Supreme Court overturned that law, but after the next election when a majority of People's Party judges assumed the Kansas bench, the law giving borrowers relief was reinstated.

Cartoon from the St. John County Capital
That resulted in an appeal to the US Supreme Court, where Justice George Shiras, Jr. wrote the opinion.  The court ruled that the terms when the contract was signed could not be altered by the Kansas legislature retroactively after one party to the agreement had relied on the promises of the other party, despite unanticipated hardships.  Although the law was clear and the ruling was correct, Justice Shiras added a note that the ruling was not intended to address the fairness of these mortgage contracts.

Too often, people do not understand the role of judges.  They are the watchdogs  protecting our laws and when people bring cases to the court they must determine the outcome based on the law, not on their personal feelings.  That is what Justice Shiras attempted to explain.  At the time the farmers received the money from the banks, they agreed to certain terms which the bank required in order to make the loan.  It was contrary to established law to permit the desperate farmers to get the benefit of modified foreclosure protections retroactively when the bank had relied on stricter requirements at the time they agreed to loan the farmers money.

It isn't about whether it makes the judges happy to adhere to laws.  Rather it is their duty to apply the laws in all cases, without regard to their personal feelings.  

US Supreme Court Justice George Shiras, Jr.
People who disagree with rulings sometimes object that a case was overturned on "technicalities," but that shows their bias or misunderstanding of the law.  We all depend on the courts to resolve matters according to law, not just in the easy cases but also in those cases that seem difficult.  Clearly Justice Shiras was sympathetic to the plight of the farmers who had worked hard and would lose the benefits of years of backbreaking labor if they could not pay their notes and the banks foreclosed on their farms.  Yet, it was what they had agreed to when they received the loan and the bankers had kept their part of the bargain.

So if you hear someone complaining about a court overturning a case on a technicality, do not misunderstand the meaning of "technicality."  "Technicality" means that something was done wrong or the law was not applied correctly.  In criminal cases particularly, sometimes hateful or disgusting people benefit from the technicality or error in their trials, and those are the hard cases.  Yet, we would want to be protected by the laws if we stood before a court, and if judges began ruling willy-nilly as they personally found fair, none of us could depend on our laws.

Holbein's painting of Sir Thomas More
In the movie A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More is asked by his son-in-law William Roper:  "So now you give the Devil the the benefit of law!"  To which More replies:  "Yes, what would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?"  Roper answers:  "Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

Here is the important reply from More:  "Oh, and when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat?  ...[D]o you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

(If you are not familiar with this motion picture, I recommend that you find a copy to watch.  The devout More adhered to his faith and willingly suffered the legal consequences, sacrificing his own life by respecting both the laws of his country and the tenants of his faith.)

Beware someone who criticizes judges who overturn a lower court's decision on a technicality.  As much as the farmers in the late 1800s may have been disappointed by the US Supreme Court's decision, those judges were doing their jobs as duty demanded.

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