Via Sports Law Blog, I saw a new paper: Aaron Zelinsky, The Justice as Commissioner: Benching the Judge-Umpire Analogy, 119 Yale L.J. Online 113. [After writing this post, I saw the WSJ Law Blog covered it, too.]

Here’s the abstract:

The judge-umpire analogy has become “accepted as a kind of shorthand for judicial ‘best practices’” in describing the role of a Supreme Court Justice. However, the analogy suffers from three fundamental flaws. First, courts historically aimed the judge-umpire analogy at trial judges. Second, courts intended the judge-umpire analogy as an illustrative foil to be rejected because of the umpire’s passivity. Third, the analogy inaccurately describes the contemporary role of the modern Supreme Court Justice. Nevertheless, no workable substitute for the judge-umpire analogy has been advanced. This Essay proposes that the appropriate analog for a Justice of the Supreme Court is not an umpire, but the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

I agree with his argument regarding Supreme Court Justices. Given the Justices’ policy-making focus and their practice of deciding cases based on the long-term consequences rather than the particular facts of the case, the umpire analogy makes little to no sense for them.

But that’s not the whole story. The judges-as-umpires analogy does not work for trial judges either, because the analogy downplays the inherent uncertainty in the law and diminishes the significance and breadth of what trial judges do.

There are a handful of situations in which a trial judge, like an umpire, must draw upon their experience and intuition to quickly exercise discretion in applying a general rule, like when ruling upon evidentiary objections at trial.

Most of the time, however, trial judges have plenty of time to contemplate the issues before them, like when ruling upon motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and motions for post-trial relief — the three most important dispositive motions.

In those instances, the judge is not merely called upon to decide whether or not a pitch was within the strike zone. Indeed, in many situations, the judge is not even asked to decide if the pitch really was within the strike zone (i.e., whether the allegations made by one side are true or false), because they are required to accept the truth of what one of the parties says or of what the jury found. (There are a handful of exceptions, like sentencing decisions, but those, too, are fraught with uncertainty.)

In most situations, the judge is asked to figure out where the strike zone should be. It is as if there were different strike zones for fastballs, breaking balls, and changeups, and the umpire had to determine — based on nothing more the players’ arguments about the pitch (i.e., the briefs and the oral argument) — which rule should apply.

But that’s not the hard part. In many situations, trial judges must decide not just which rule should apply based on imperfect and incomplete information, but what the rules even are.

Imagine there were different strike zones for different pitches, yet no one agreed what a sinker, curveball, slider, screwball, palmball, or knuckleball even was, and the umpires were supposed to decide which pitch was really used by reviewing dozens of calls by prior umpires, many of which seemed to reach contradictory results and none of which involved the exact same style pitch as the situation at hand.

Making matters worse, imagine, too, that the players themselves don’t know for sure what the rules are, and that, after each pitch, the coaches run out to argue over what type of pitch it was.

Does that sound like baseball to you? It sounds like Calvinball to me.

And it sounds like a heckuva game to play.