A Downer of a Ruling

Seventeen students arrested during in a “sit in” at the University of Virginia president’s office have been found not guilty by Judge Robert H. Downer Jr., of the Charlottesville General District Court. The judge’s rationale: They were not given enough time to leave the building before their arrest.

What’s going on here? Does the People’s Republic of Charlottesville operate by a different set of laws than the rest of the Commonwealth?

Demanding that UVa President John Casteen pay “a living wage” to the university’s lowest-paid employees, the students held a sit-in in the lobby of Casteen’s office in Madison Hall. Casteen gave the students numerous opportunities to leave without being arrested. On day one of the protest, university authorities denied food to the students; on day two, they cut off wireless access. Then before the arrests, according to Carlos Santos’ account in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Leonard W. Sandridge Jr., UVa’s chief operating officer, read a statement giving them five minutes to leave.

But Judge Downer said the students had less than five minutes before they were arrested by UVa police. Santos quoted Downer as follows: “It didn’t appear to me that anybody was going to leave … But that time (five minutes) had not elapsed.”

What does that have to do with anything? Did the students trespass, or did they not? Were they there illegally, or were they not? How is it even remotely relevant that, after occupying the lobby for two days, they were given less than the promised five minutes to leave?

There may be considerations omitted from Santos’ story, so I am willing to modify my statements in the light of additional information. But based on the facts presented, Downer comes across like some radical lefty judge from California who bases his ruling on personal whim, not the law. I hope this ruling is not typical. Do any of our readers know anything about Downer?

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6 responses to “A Downer of a Ruling”

  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    (Wearing a baby blue leisure suite, wide collars and bell bottoms) we sing, “Feelings, whoa whoa, Feelings!”

  2. kingfish Avatar

    I do not know Judge Downer, but I have learned that it is extremely risky to rely on the media presentation of a case to evaluate whether a Judge has made a good decision.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    When I was in college, I was involved in a wage dispute. The college was looking for someone to run the print shop, which was previously a full time employee. The college policy was that students got minimum wage, although most student jobs were unskilled. I applied for the job, but explained that I could not accept a skilled job at minimum wage, and because of my school schedule I would not be able to always accept rush jobs.

    My supervisor explained that it was policy that students only got minimum wage, but she would go to bat for me for wages equivalent to the skill level required, and the previous employee. I accepted the job on a trial basis, with her assurances that we had an understanding.

    Whether she didn’t go to bat or struck out, I don’t know. As time went by the school discovered that I was producing more work, part time, than the previous full time employee. The work load increased and the deadlines got shorter, but the pay didn’t increase.

    One night I went in and found a rush job for invitations to some function for the dean. I left the job in the inbox and went and took a job in a commercial plant downtown at three times my school salary.

    My supervisor calledin a panic and wanted to know where her invitations were, so I asked her where my raise was, and explained I could not afford to work for her under these conditions. She said they couldn’t afford to pay me.

    Lo and behold, the first job that shows up in my new inbox is the Dean’s invitations! This led to a very frank and animated discussion between me, my supervisor, and the dean concerning the amount of money they had to do their printing, and their previous promises to me.

    I could not prevail in that discussion, but I knew the other student with commercial printing background who might replace me. I explained the situation to him and suggested that in no circumstances should he accept the position at minimum wage.

    He got the raise, and I kept my commercial job. So, I’m skeptical about what the University is willing to pay its lowest paid workers. Still, the market is what it is, and there is no need to pay more than you have to. On the other hand paying someone less than it takes to live mght be more injurious than just admitting that you can’t afford to have the work done. It is just a recipe for postponing the problems the employee will eventually face.

    That does not justify the student’s actions, and I don’t know the situations that incited the students to take action, but I’m inclined to believe that even Universities are not above a certain amount of foul play when it comes to money.

    The students had plenty of other options, like editorials, blogging, and pickets, but trespassing and interfering with other people’s activities is clearly not productive.

    It may well be that there is more to the story than meets the eye, and the judge had valid reasons for going lightly. It does appear that some factor other than the law played a part.

    If the purpose of the University is to advance people’s prospects, then maybe they should reconsider their employment policies.

    Between the University, the Judge, and the Student’s there seems to be plenty of blame to go around, and this is another example of what happens when intransigent, winner-take-all attitudes prevail over accommodation and common sense.

  4. Waldo Jaquith Avatar
    Waldo Jaquith

    The coverage has been unclear thus far, but it’s my understanding that, oddly, the students were simply never ordered to leave until they were given the 5-minute deadline. On the first day a professor was ordered to leave. She didn’t and she was arrested and, yesterday, she was convicted. When the students were finally ordered to leave, they were told to do so within five minutes. They were arrested after four. Hence, they weren’t yet trespassing.

    The moral of the story? UVa should have ordered them to leave several days previous. Then they clearly would have been trespassing.

    FWIW, I do know about Judge Downer. We’ve met a few times. He’s your basic judge type. I don’t know if he’s local, but he’s lived here for many years. Nothing unusual about the guy that I know of.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Waldo, Your explanation seems to be the only one that makes any sense. But previous articles had noted that the administration had cut off food supplies and cut off wireless access — certainly implicit orders to leave. If the administration never gave an explicit command, then I suppose it has no grounds to complain. Indeed, one could accuse the Casteen administration of bungling the job.

  6. Waldo Jaquith Avatar
    Waldo Jaquith

    I want to add, in case it wasn’t clear, that I’m just trying to paste together my own understanding of the story based on what I’ve heard from friends of the students, media coverage, and local word-of-mouth. Just because my version makes sense doesn’t mean it’s accurate. 🙂

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