Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Fatal police shooting of Ryan Stokes in Kansas City provides evidence that Donald Trump is packing federal courts with incompetent, right-wing hacks

Ryan Stokes and his daughter

How do we know a Trump-appointed appellate judge  got it wrong when he wrote an opinion that led to a Kansas City, MO, police officer receiving immunity from lawsuit after fatally shooting an unarmed black man in the back? The judge in question is David Stras, appointed in 2017 to the U.S. Eighth Circuit  Court of Appeals, and Stras' own words tell us he wrongfully forced a lower-court judge to grant immuniy via summary judgment to officer William Thompson in the 2013 shooting of Ryan Stokes.

The Stokes family filed a lawsuit for excessive force and wrongful death on behalf of Ryan Stokes' infant daughter, in a case styled N.S., et al v. Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, et al (8th Cir., 2019).As a matter of law, the lawsuit should have gone to settlement or trial, but a three-judge panel's unlawful grant of immunity -- with Stras writing the opinion -- short-circuited any chance the Stokes family had of receiving even a sliver of justice.

U.S. Judge David Stras
How gross was the Stras panel's butchery of the N.S. case? To arrive at an answer to that question, we first need to consider the proper steps for considering summary judgment, as spelled out in case law and Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). Here are three key elements:

(1) The evidence of the nonmovant (the Stokes family, in this case) is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986).

(2) Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact, and “the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986).

(3) In passing upon a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion and to give to that party the benefit of reasonable inferences to be drawn from underlying facts. Robert Johnson Grain Co. v. Chem. Interchange Co., 541 F. 2d 207 - Court of Appeals (8th Circuit, 1976). Adickes v. SH Kress and Co., 398 US 144 
 (Supreme Court 1970).
Did the Stras panel follow these straightforward provisions of summary-judgment law? Not even close. Let's consider Stras' own words from the N.S. opinion:

Some evidence supports Thompson's account. The police discovered a handgun on the driver's seat of the car, which could mean that Stokes was armed when he entered the parking lot but then tossed the gun into the car. And witnesses who saw Stokes running said that he appeared to be "holding up his pants as he ran," which is arguably consistent with Thompson's perception that Stokes was holding a gun. Finally, Thompson's partner claims to have heard Thompson order Stokes to "get on the ground."

Other evidence supports the family's account. No one besides Thompson observed Stokes with a gun, nor was any gun found on or near his body. The car's owner, who was Stokes's friend, claimed that the gun recovered from the car belonged to him and that it had been there all night. Moreover, some officers did not recall hearing Thompson shout anything during the encounter, and at least one officer thought Stokes was trying to surrender when Thompson shot him.

Stras admits right up front that the evidence is mixed, with some of it favoring Officer Thompson's account, and some favoring the Stokes family's account. As the non-moving party, the Stokes family was entitled to have their factual allegations believed and "all justifiable inferences drawn in their favor." So, how could the Stras panel essentially force the trial court to grant summary judgment against them?

In Stras' own words, there were "multiple genuine issues of material fact," so summary judgment could not lawfully be granted. Why did the panel force summary judgment anyway?

In laying out the evidence above, the panel was required " to view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion (the Stokes family) and to give to that party the benefit of reasonable inferences to be drawn from underlying facts." So, why did the panel do just the opposite, viewing all facts in favor of the moving party, Officer Thompson?

Our review of the N.S. case is sobering, to say the least. Does it add to the evidence that the rule of law is crumbling in the United States, as we have spotlighted in a series of recent posts? Does it suggest Trump is packing federal courts with partisan, incompetent hacks? We think it suggests both.

Cynthia Short, an attorney for the Stokes family, says they intend to appeal the grant of summary judgment.

On a personal level, the N.S. case provides insight about one of several cheat jobs Mrs. Schnauzer and I have experienced in federal court. It also stirs memories of our encounters with violent cops, including the unlawful eviction here in Missouri, which ended with Greene County deputies breaking my wife Carol's arm.

 The bottom line: We have encountered multiple federal judges who are even more hideously corrupt than Trump pick David Stras.

(To be continued)

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