By Jim Smith
When President Obama nominated fellow Harvard Law School graduate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on March 16, he thought he was picking the least controversial judge he could find. Garland has been a judge, and then the chief judge, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, since being appointed by President Bill Clinton 19 years ago.
After carefully vetting the judge, Obama knew there would be no scandals such as pot smoking, a boyfriend or other social alarm bells that would drive Republicans crazy. And, Obama knew that the judge had never addressed issues such as the death penalty, abortion or gun control. The D.C. Circuit deals mainly with reviewing decisions of federal government agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service. Garland kept his head down while plodding rough federal regulations.
What the President didn’t know was Garland, in at least one case, was either unable to read or understand the plain language in a federal statute, and consequently made the wrong decision on the case. One attorney, in a polite response, said the decision was “deeply flawed.” In the legal world, incompetence is worse than having political beliefs or puffing on a joint now and then.
What does all this have to do with Venice? Well, the case that Garland fumbled had to do with the Venice Post Office. When word leaked out, in 2011, that the historic Venice Post Office would be up for sale, several individuals and organizations came together under the umbrella of the Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office. The classic Roosevelt-era building with its equally classic mural, The Story of Venice, had been a regular stop on the rounds of generations of Venetians. Now it faced an unknown future because of a decision made 3,000 miles away.
The Coalition mobilized Venetians with flyers, rallies, and meetings. Since all the decisions were made in Washington D.C., we formulated an appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), which summarily denied the appeal without holding a hearing.
The Coalition then made contact with a D.C. attorney who had expertise in the byzantine world of federal regulations and requirements. A petition for review of the decision of the PRC in allowing the sale to go forward was filed with the District Court and ended up in the lap of the chief judge, Merrick Garland.
Attorney Elaine Mittleman, acting on behalf of aggrieved Venetians, pointed in her petition to “the plain language of a statutory provision, 39 U.S.C. § 3663” which requires a court review once the petition is filed.
Since this section of the U.S. Code is the heart of Garland’s mistake, it is reproduced in full: A person, including the Postal Service, adversely affected or aggrieved by a final order or decision of the Postal Regulatory Commission may, within 30 days after such order or decision becomes final, institute proceedings for review thereof by filing a petition in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The court shall review the order or decision in accordance with section 706 of title 5, and chapter 158 and section 2112 of title 28, on the basis of the record before the Commission.
Judge Garland, in his decision of July 8, 2014, discounts the 2006 law, above, and claims it does not supersede a 1974 provision that exempts post office closings from judicial review until the PRC has made its ruling. Garland took this to mean that no court review was necessary even after a PRC ruling.
Mittleman told the Beachhead, “I can’t overstate how flawed this opinion is. Agencies must know that their final orders can be reviewed in court – that is part of what should make agencies operate properly. Judge Garland missed this very fundamental point?”
A post office closing, for many people, is the most important decision the post office can make since they are reliant on its services. Judge Garland may not be aware that there are many postal patrons who need a full service post office within walking distance, and many more who take civic pride in the stately, and massive, design that says, “here is a city worth noting.”
Meanwhile, as the legal filings, pro and con, continue, what has been the effect of Garland’s decision to disallow a court review, and a possible reversal of the PRC’s decision to sell the Venice Post Office?
Today, the once-beautiful building looks like an abandoned ruin. An advertising and graffiti-laden plywood fence surrounds the property. No work appears to have taken place in a long while.
The Postal Service sold the building to Hollywood Producer Joel Silver, who said he would remodel the building for use as his company office. Meanwhile, several of Silver’s recent films did poorly at the box office, according to Variety magazine. Contractors’ bills went unpaid, resulting in liens against the property. Little or no work has been done since the lawsuits against Silver were filed a year ago. If the suits are not settled, one result could be a forced sale of the property to pay the bills.
In addition, the mural that greeted postal patrons in the lobby has gone missing. The Story of Venice painting by noted artist Edward Biberman had hung in the post office since 1941. At the time the building was sold to Silver, he also leased the mural from the Postal Service. The lease agreement required the mural to be on public display at least six days per calendar year. Concerned Venice organizations did not learn about this provision until after the fact, nor were they provided with a copy of the lease agreement.
In any case, Silver has not complied with this provision, weak as it is. A number of people have told this reporter that they would prefer to have the mural on display at the Venice/Abbot Kinney Library where it could be seen by many library patrons during regular hours.
The sad story of the Venice Post Office has been due to the lack of concern by Postal officials, Judge Garland, Joel Silver and his creditors. The lack of support for the postal system by the U.S. Congress in favor of private corporations like UPS and FedEx is behind the shrinking role of this public service. The USPS is prohibited from “competing” with these private entities, and must pay them to ship its parcels.
The reestablishment of a postal savings bank was floated by both the Venice Coalition and Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others. Such a bank would attract low-income earners that the commercial banks don’t even want. Instead, the Venice Post Office ran into a meat grinder of fiscal and social irresponsibility which was then continued by Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland.