San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 25th, 2008
When is a car not a car?

COMMENTARY
By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

Federal Judge Sam Sparks has delivered so many clear-eyed, sensible rulings through the years that one is intrinsically confident he will always get it right. Thus, it came as some surprise when Sparks ruled earlier this month against Michael Kleinman, the owner of Planet K in San Marcos, who converted a car into a planter outside of his store.

It seemed, from this perspective, that even if the resulting sculpture wasn’t the most beautiful work of art, it still couldn’t be regarded as a junk vehicle, but that’s a philosophical perspective, one among many. When is a car no longer a car? When it turns into a driveway (a joke answer). Or when it’s turned into a planter (a philosophical answer).

But then we read Sparks’ ruling and realized, as we already should have, that philosophical questions, once they enter the legal process, become legal questions. And there is a huge difference between the philosophical impulse and the legal imperative.

In other words, Sparks ruled on the legal merits. He didn’t address the philosophical question as to whether the junked car-turned-planter was a junk car or a planter, because that’s not his job as a federal judge in this case. His job is to uphold the law, and the legal process by which it is established. And that falls to an entirely different set of questions.

To review: Kleinman, attempting to make a statement about pollution caused by motor vehicles, invited Planet K patrons to smash a car located outside the shop with a sledgehammer for $1 per whack. Once the vehicle had been sufficiently destroyed and the wheels removed, Kleinman invited local artists to paint San Marcos scenes on the outside and planted cacti inside. Thus, Kleinman claimed that the object had become a planter.

City officials cited Kleinman under a junk vehicle ordinance. The case went before the San Marcos municipal court, which ruled, in the city’s favor, that the object is a junk vehicle. So, Kleinman sought to have the matter addressed in another legal venue, seeking First Amendment protection for his novel planter.

Now, here’s where the legal questions take over from the philosophical questions. It’s true that any court decision can be appealed, but within limits. First, the appeal has to be made at the correct time and venue. Otherwise, the original court decision is final and, once that decision is final, then the doctrine of res judicata kicks in.

As the doctrine of res judicata is central to Sparks’ ruling, it’s worth quoting Sparks at length: “The doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion prevents a party from relitigating a claim or cause of action that has been finally adjudicated on the merits. Res judicata insures the finality of judgments and thereby conserves judicial resources and protects litigants from multiple lawsuits involving the same claims.”

In other words, once a question has been decided in court and the appeals process has played out, the winning side shouldn’t have to worry about a new legal attack on the same grounds. The court’s decision is final.

Once the municipal court decided in the city’s favor, Kleinman had ten days to appeal in the county court at law. However, Sparks said, Kleinman didn’t appeal in the county court at law. Instead, Kleinman sued San Marcos in the 22nd Judicial District of Hays County. Thus, because the proper appeal was not filed, the municipal court’s ruling against Kleinman became final on Jan. 20, when Kleinman’s window for appeal expired.

The appeals process thereby ended, and the municipal court’s decision was forever to be upheld on the doctrine of res judicata. As Kleinman’s suit in district court raised the same issues involving the same parties, Sparks had no choice but to dismiss it, because the municipal court’s decision is protected by res judicate from collateral attack. Sparks cited legal precedent saying that even an incorrect final judgment is entitled to res judicata protection.

Therefore, quoting Sparks, “Kleinman’s argument (in his district court lawsuit) that the automobile/planter at issue has been modified to such an extent that it is no longer a ‘vehicle’ within the meaning of the City Ordinance is unavailing.”

The municipal court decided Kleinman’s object was a junk vehicle. Kleinman responded with a lawsuit in district court, rather than an appeal of the municipal court’s decision. However, the municipal court’s decision became final when Kleinman didn’t appeal. Once a court decision is finalized, rightly or wrongly, it can not be re-opened in a new legal proceeding. Thus, Kleinman’s lawsuit in district court had to be dismissed. That’s what Sparks ruled.

It’s worth emphasizing, contrary to other reports, that Sparks did not rule either way as to whether Kleinman’s object should be properly regarded as a planter or a junk vehicle. Sparks only ruled that the municipal court’s question on that matter was final by light of the legal process, protected by the doctrine of res judicata and, therefore, could not be tried again in the legal process.

However, Sparks added, it’s well established that courts can review the constitutionality of enforcing municipal ordinances even after a municipal court ruling. Kleinman claimed enforcement of the junk vehicle ordinance violated his constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Did it?

Sparks said it did not. Sparks said Kleinman didn’t establish a violation under either the United States or Texas Constitutions. According to legal precedent, each allows cities to impose reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on artistic expression. Sparks said the junked vehicle ordinance is intended to protect citizens from “urban blight,” and is not written to restrict free speech about automobile pollution.

Does the ordinance have the effect of restricting free speech about automobile pollution? No, said Sparks, because anyone “is free to express his concern over automobile pollution in a host of other ways that do not violate city ordinances.” The automobile, Sparks said, is a means of expressing the message, but it is not the message. Even if the message is protected, the means of expressing it is restricted when it conflicts with “time, manner and place” concerns.

Free speech is crucial, and we’ve absolutely got to have it, but it is reasonable to impose time, manner and place restrictions. One can’t go on a killing spree, then argue that his actions should be protected as free speech because he’s making an artistic statement about man’s inhumanity towards man. We can concede that he’s making an artistic statement and still find him guilty of murder.

Likewise, quoting Sparks, “Though a junked vehicle may be a particularly effective mode of expressing concern over pollution caused by automobiles, the use of an automobile as an artistic medium is still part of the manner in which Plaintiff’s statement is expressed, not the statement itself. The automobile is not the message.”

To review, Sparks’ ruling contains two parts.

First: the municipal court’s decision as to whether the object is a planter or junked car was finalized as a legal matter when the correct process for appealing the decision was not pursued. That decision, right or wrong, is protected by res judicata.

Second: granting the municipal court’s protected decision that the object is a junk vehicle, the message is not protected as free speech because it conflicts with reasonable time, manner and place restrictions on expressing a message. We may say what we wish. We just can’t necessarily say it the way that we wish.

Because Kleinman didn’t follow the appeals process for addressing whether the object truly is a planter or a junked vehicle, the philosophical question remains open, as it should be. The philosophical impulse keeps questions alive, constantly turns them over, examines them from every direction and never really needs an answer. The philosophical impulse sees a question not as a call to decide one way or the other, but as an invitation to an edifying discourse. One feels a measure of pity for those who don’t see the point. They’re missing a pretty good game.

But a legal proceeding isn’t the same kind of game, because legal system seeks resolution for particular cases. In this case, the question is resolved by legal technicalities. In a hypothetical similar case to come, the philosophical question is unresolved.

Is this particular object a junked vehicle or a planter? In this case, the legal answer is that it’s a junked vehicle. In the next hypothetical case, perhaps, the legal process will take a different course to a different answer. The philosophical questions remain open, and the legal process has its own ways of answering them.

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One thought on “When is a car not a car?

  1. Pingback: Federal judge reconsiders Planet K car case | San Marcos Mercury

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