The Danger Of Trying To Predict Legal Decisions

On September 26, 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a summary order in favor of the state Republican Party on its claim that its candidates were entitled to the top spot on the ballot in the upcoming elections.  The Court said that a full-fledged written decision would follow.  I foolishly dared to predict what the Court would actually say in that forthcoming decision.   Specifically, I predicted that the Court would conclude that the Republican Party had an administrative remedy–it could have sought a declaratory ruling under the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act from the Secretary of State (“SOS”)–but that pursuing that remedy would have been “futile” because the SOS had made clear that she intended to stand by her view that the Democratic Party would get the top ballot position.

The Court issued its written ruling last week and my prediction was, well, wrong.  Not dead wrong but, as Miracle Max might say, “mostly dead” wrong.   My prediction about the existence of an administrative remedy was correct, but my “futility” prediction was way off base.  Instead, the Court ruled that a letter the Republican Party had written to the SOS concerning the ballot position issue constituted, in substance if not form, a request for a declaratory ruling.  The Court further ruled that the SOS’s public statement rejecting the Republican Party’s position constituted, in substance if not form, a declaratory ruling.  Thus, the party had exhausted its administrative remedies.

The Court’s reasoning created a bit of a legal conundrum.  If the Republican Party had effectively requested, and if the SOS had effectively issued, a declaratory ruling, shouldn’t the party have filed an administrative appeal instead of a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment?   The Court resolved that conundrum this way:

Finally, we conclude that, under the circumstances of this case, we may treat this declaratory judgment action as an administrative appeal pursuant to § 4–183. See Mario v. Fairfield, 217 Conn. 164, 167 n. 6, 585 A.2d 87 (1991) (treating declaratory judgment action as administrative appeal). The plaintiff has reaped no procedural advantage by bringing a declaratory judgment action and seeks the same remedy and relief that it would have been entitled to seek in an administrative appeal. See Stepney Pond Estates, Ltd. v. Monroe, 260 Conn. 406, 422, 797 A.2d 494 (2002). In addition, because the question before us is a pure legal question, the absence of an administrative record does not render the plaintiff’s claim unreviewable. Accordingly, we conclude that it would elevate form over substance to require the plaintiff to initiate a new proceeding that in all material respects would be identical to this one.

As a general matter, I applaud courts that refuse to elevate form over substance.   At the end of the day, what the Republican Party wanted was a legal ruling from a court as to the meaning of the statute governing ballot position.  Since the meaning of a statute is a pure question of law, what difference does it make whether a party seeks such a ruling through an administrative appeal or through a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment and/or injunction?  Those are simply two different legal paths leading to the same legal conclusion.

I wonder, however, whether the Court’s decision invites parties seeking rulings on pure questions of law to skip the administrative process entirely and go straight to Superior Court.   As I read the decision, the Court seems to be saying that if the legal issue is one of pure law, and if the administrative agency’s legal interpretation of the statute at issue is not entitled to any deference, there is no need to bother with the administrative process, at least not formally.  Personally, I’m o.k. with that approach; it saves time and money without sacrificing anything of real legal value.   That being said, why not just say that in cases involving pure issues of law, a party does not need to go through the administrative agency process at all.   That might be preferable to an approach that requires a court to construe informal letters to and from administrative officials as “requests” for a declaratory rulings and as the declaratory rulings themselves.

If readers have a different view, please let me know.



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