Supreme Court plays referee

Sometimes on the playing field, the rules take on a life of their own — until the referee blows his whistle. That’s sort of what the Supreme Court just did in a decision so recent the ink is wet.

In the case under review, a cop shot a man on a porch, the man lived and sued the cop. That’s enough background for the point I’m going to make. When the lawsuit was filed in federal district court, it was dismissed before trial on summary judgment grounds. The court reasoned that the force was not unreasonable, so there was nothing for a jury to hear. 

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s outcome, but with different reasoning. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter. In a tight, relatively short (for these folks) decision, the Supreme Court reminded everyone that issues of fact must be decided by a jury. 

The Supreme Court stated it was improper for the appellate court to have “weighed the evidence” and resolved a dispute in favor of the non-moving party. In other words, the appellate court should have credited evidence about the lighting of the locale and the demeanor, vocalizations and positioning of the participants. It appears that these details were not properly considered. Presumably, if the court had given credit to these elements, the matter would have gone to a jury for decision instead of being dismissed by the judge.

Summary judgment certainly has a place in our judicial system as it removes claims and arguments that aren’t supported and shouldn’t be presented to a jury. Still, our system is built on an arrangement where the courts tell us what the law is and juries tell us what the facts are. Anything less is out of bounds. You can find a link to the decision on my website at

Underway and making way.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at . His website is

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