Senator Al Franken (D-MN), as he said himself during Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, used to have “a career in identifying absurdity” as a humorist and one of SNL’s original writers.
Ironically, his early career has carried over rather too well to policy making, as he demonstrated while grilling Gorsuch about his ruling in the so-called “Frozen Trucker case.”
The case at hand is that of Alphonse Maddin, a truck driver for TransAm. The brakes on Maddin’s trailer locked up on a subzero January night, and he called for help from TransAm’s road service. They told him to wait, and he did — for two hours, despite discovering that the heat in his truck cab was broken. When he was woken by a phone call, he had a numb torso and couldn’t feel his feet.
“If you fall asleep waiting in 14 below zero weather, you can freeze to death. You can die,” Franken explained in his retelling of the case.
Maddin called back TransAm’s road service, who told him to “hang in there.” He waited 30 more minutes. Then, he unhitched his broken trailer and drove off seeking help. About fifteen minutes later, when the repair truck finally arrived, Maddin drove back to meet it.
TransAm fired him for abandoning his trailer, and Maddin filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), citing a statute that prohibits an employer for firing an employee for refusing to “operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.”
Gorsuch, however, concluded that the statute didn’t protect Maddin, because he had operated his vehicle — the cab of his truck. And, in his decision, Gorsuch described Maddin’s situation like so:
“A trucker was stranded on the side of the road, late at night, in cold weather, and his trailer brakes were stuck. He called his company for help and someone there gave him two options. He could drag the trailer carrying the company’s goods to its destination (an illegal and maybe sarcastically offered option). Or he could sit and wait for help to arrive (a legal if unpleasant option). The trucker chose None of the Above, deciding instead to unhook the trailer and drive his truck to a gas station.
In his questioning, Franken criticized Gorsuch for describing the night as merely “cold” and laid out the choice Maddin faced more realistically: “There were two safety issues here. One, the possibility of freezing to death, or driving with that rig in a very, very dangerous way.”
Then Franken asked Gorsuch what he would have done in Maddin’s case. Gorsuch evaded answering, saying he wasn’t in Maddin’s shoes. He also appealed to it as solely legal ruling — which Franken also ripped apart.
“What you’re talking about here is the plain meaning rule. Here is what the rule means. When the plain meaning of a statute is clear on its face, when its meaning is obvious, courts have no business looking beyond the meaning to the statute’s purpose. And that’s what you used, right?,” Franken said.
Gorsuch agreed that that was what was argued.
“But the plain meaning rule has an exception. When using the plain meaning rule would create an absurd result, courts should depart from the plain meaning. It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd.”
“Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity,” Franken continued. “And I know it when I see it. And it makes me — you know, it makes me question your judgment,” he said.
Later in his testimony, Gorsuch argued that this exception to the plain meaning rule should not apply in Maddin’s case. Nevertheless, there are other reasons why Gorsuch could have sided with Maddin. As the two other appeals court judges hearing this case noted, a federal agency read the word “operate” in this law more broadly than Gorsuch, and Supreme Court precedent calls upon judges to be deferential to agencies in these contexts.
Additionally, as Fordham law professor Jed Handelsman Shugerman notes, the law could also be read to allow Maddin to refuse to operate the truck while the trailer with the frozen brakes was attached.