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In the Case of a Trucker’s Life vs. His Cargo, Judge Neil Gorsuch Ruled for the Cargo

Though life is a basic good to be preserved for its own sake, the cargo is somehow more precious than life itself.

Is Neil Gorsuch the right choice for the Supreme Court? He says he is because his decisions “have never reflected a judgment about the people before me.” All he does is “apply the law.” Sounds simple.

But not so fast, your honor. Consider this true story:

Alphonse Maddin was driving a trailer truck in Illinois one night in January 2009. The temperature was 14 below zero. The brakes on his trailer failed. He called his company to send out a rescue truck and then waited in his unheated cab for hours. When he was frozen numb and couldn’t speak clearly, he decided to unhitch the trailer and drive off to safety.

Maddin’s employer had a rule: Any driver who leaves his load unattended gets fired. Presumably the company fears losing its cargo, and thus its profit. So the company fired Maddin.

He appealed to the Labor Department. It has a rule protecting an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because … the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public.” Maddin had a reasonable apprehension not just of injury, but of death. Six different judges agreed that he should not have been fired.

The only judge who disagreed was Neil Gorsuch. Maddin “wasn’t fired for refusing to operate his vehicle,” Gorsuch wrote last year in his dissent. He was fired for operating — that is, driving — his vehicle in a way contrary to company policy. So the company had a right to fire him.

Maddin had a simple choice, Gorsuch concluded: Freeze to death or lose your job. Maybe the company was not wise or kind, he added, “but it’s not our job to answer questions like that.” We judges just apply the law to the case at hand.

In fact, though, every time judges make decisions, they interpret the law. And another interpretation in this case was perfectly logical, as Gorsuch’s two colleagues on the appeals court showed in their majority opinion, finding that the company could not fire Maddin.

When you “operate” a tractor-trailer, the majority said, you don’t just drive the cab. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, you “control the functioning of” the whole vehicle. Using that definition, Maddin rightly “refused to operate the tractor-trailer in the manner instructed by his employer” in order to save his life.

When Gorsuch restricted “operating” to only “driving,” he was simply “choosing a favorite dictionary definition” of the word “operate,” as his colleagues said. So Gorsuch was not simply applying a clear-cut law. He was inventing his own rather heartless interpretation, one that supported the trucking company, which was out to save its profits, against the trucker, who was out to save his life.

In this case Gorsuch said the truck driver had a choice: lose your life or your livelihood. If he is on the Supreme Court, his narrow interpretation might deprive someone of life, or cause any manner of suffering, without any choice. The victims of his interpretations will have no further appeal.

This is all very curious because Gorsuch has said he believes that “life itself is a basic good. … We seek to protect and preserve life for life’s own sake in everything.” He wrote those words in a book arguing that no one has the right to choose assisted death. Never mind how much needless suffering it avoids, or that the people of his own state have voted to allow it. Gorsuch insists that you must never choose to end your life, or help someone else do it, because life is so precious.

But he says you must never abandon your employer’s cargo, not even to save your life, at least not if you want to keep your job. Apparently, though life is a basic good to be preserved for its own sake, the cargo is somehow more precious than life itself.

If you think a man so lacking in logic as well as heart has no place on the Supreme Court, let Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner know. Bennet’s vote, especially, could well decide whether or not Gorsuch sits on the Supreme Court for the next 30 or 40 years.

This article was originally published in The Denver Post.

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