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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Commissioner as Justice or Executive? Thoughts on Zelinsky
Mike already mentioned Aaron Zelinsky's new essay (forthcoming in Yale Law Journal Online) arguing that the better baseball analogy is between Supreme Court justices and the baseball commissioner. Aaron sent me a draft of the paper and I made a few comments; he gave me permission to reprint them (in much expanded form) here.
For starters, the analogy does work in some respects. The commissioner (working, in part, with the owners) makes prospective rules of general applicability, umpires apply them in particular game settings, and the commissioner corrects their understanding of those rules when it believes the umps got it wrong.
The problem with this is that the Supreme Court makes prospective rules within the confines of review of lower court judgments through case-based decision-making. Not only does the Court establish a rule going forward, but it also dictates something about the outcome of a specific legal dispute. By contrast, the commissioner virtually never reverses a judgment (a particular ball/strike/safe out call) issued by an umpire; and he certainly virtually never reverses the sum-total of all umpire judgments, the result of a single game. The Pine Tar Game in 1984, which Aaron discusses in his paper, is one of the rare examples of this. Of course, that reversal was possible only because the umps' decision came on the very last play of the game; if it had happened in the 5th inning, the league might have had a harder time outright reversing the outcome.
Rather, it seems to me that the commissioner is better thought of as a legislator. Or better still, as the executive working together with the various teams/owners/GMs acting as the legislature. In most of the examples Aaron presents (the calling of balks, changing the strike zone, etc.), the commissioner has seen how umpires have been interpreting and applying the rules, not liked that approach, and changed the rules (or ordered a different interpretation) going forward. This very much how Congress (or Congress and the President) interact with the courts on matters of subconstitutional law--courts apply the rules in cases and, when Congress does not like the way the rules are being interpreted, understood, or applied, it changes the rules prospectively, to be applied by courts in future cases. In fact, the one thing Congress cannot do is dictate case-specific outcomes to courts; it can only set the rules
Put somewhat differently, the Supreme Court and the trial courts (who Aaron says are better comparable to umpires) are engaged in a version of the same enterprise--deciding discrete cases. The commissioner and the umpires are doing something very different from one another, just as the legislature and the courts are doing something very different from one another.
Of course, much depends on whether we see the strike zone (or the rules of the game more generally) as analogous to statutes or to the Constitution. If the strike zone is statutory, then commissioner-as-Congress makes sense, in terms of degree of control. If the strike zone is constitutional, then this does not work.
Moreover, Aaron's analogy potentially breaks down along a couple of points.
First is the difference between how the Commissioner makes legal rules to guide umpires on the ground and how the Supreme Court does. There is a difference between case-based, litigation-bound rulemaking that courts do and the more free-standing prospective rulemaking that the Commissioner engages in. Even if the Supreme Court is more concerned with rulemaking than error correction, it still makes its prospective rules rules only in the context of litigation and in the context of reviewing decisions by lower courts. While it can reach out to do a lot when it chooses, it does not have the type of free-standing rulemaking authority the commissioner has.
Second, the resulting rules are different. The "judicial minimalism" trend (espoused by C.J. Roberts and Justice O'Connor and scholars such as Cass Sunstein) affects the analogy. The Commissioner is not and arguably should not be "minimalist"--he goes around and makes the generally applicable prospective rules he believes necessary. A Justice committed to minimalism--and bound by case-based decisionmaking--will produce less far-reaching rules. And those minimalist rules arguably will be harder to apply in future cases because their contours are less clear and more in need of fleshing out by lower courts.
Third, the Commissioner is able to act unilaterally in the best interests of the game. Aaron's essay focuses heavily on the way commissioners (notably Bart Giamatti, but including others) have wielded individual power. An individual justice can do only what four other colleagues are willing to go along with; the resulting legal rules are affected by that deliberative group-based process (as a host of recent poli sci literature has demonstrated), usually by being narrower and less far-reaching. Now maybe this means that proper analogy is not Commissioner/Justice but Commissioner/Court. But we still have to account for the differences in how an individual act as opposed to how a collective acts.
Fourth, the commissioner's realm is such that he can, if he chooses, wade into a larger swath of potential areas and issues that affect how umpires call the games. The Supreme Court, even if it wanted to hear more than the ridiculous 75 cases it hears now, could not reasonably take on any substantial percentage of the cases or issues brought to the courts in a given year. At its peak, the Court in the 1970s would hear 150-200 cases per term, a tiny fraction of the cases brought in federal and state courts.
But that points up one last break in the analogy. Aaron's argument is systemic--trying to place everyone in comparable places within the system of baseball or the judiciary. But there is no rulemaking buffer between the commissioner and the umpires; the commissioner makes the rules and the policies, the umpires follow. But the Supreme Court is not even the primary rulemaker guiding the lower courts; that role is played by the courts of appeals, especially given the Supreme Court's small caseload. And if the commissioner is the Supreme Court and the umps are the trial courts, we need to find someone in MLB who is somehow analogous to these intermediate appellate courts that do make binding prospective rules, but in a far broader array of cases.