Monday, June 23, 2008

A Tough Call

Today, in Sheriff of Suffolk County v. Jail Officers & Employees of Suffolk County, SJC No. 9974, the SJC shows why being a judge can be a really hard job. At issue were two competing public policies: our preference for letting arbitration awards stand without judicial interference vs. our preference for employing jail officers who don't allegedly enable other jail officers to beat the tar out of inmates.

The problem the Court faced was that the arbitrator's finding as to whether the officer in question had actually enabled other officers to assault an inmate and then impeded the ensuing investigation were "far from a model of clarity." The arbitrator had let the officer in question come back to work after a suspension, which prompted the Sheriff to ask the Superior Court to set aside the arbitrator's decision. Complicating matters further, the arbitrator passed away while the case was pending on appeal.

The Court's decision is refreshingly short and self-aware. It holds that it can't figure out what the arbitrator decided, that it would impractical to send the case back to a new arbitrator, and so it lets the original award stand. But the Court also makes it clear that "where a jail officer actually witnesses fellow officers assault an individual who is held in the sheriff's custody, and then lies about this fact and files false reports that memorialize the falsity, we have little doubt that established public policy would condemn such conduct and would require the discharge of such an officer." This is a tough balance to have struck. And it's bound to make everyone a little bit unhappy.

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