BY MARK JAMISON
“The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.” — John Marshall
“The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.” — Frank Zappa
Justice is blind, or so we are told. The idea is that justice doesn’t favor the rich man or the poor man but is administered equally and fairly. This is a high ideal and one which we supposedly pride ourselves upon, but the truth is that justice has far too often been the province of the powerful.
Earlier this week, the Postal Regulatory Commission dismissed the appeal on the closing of the post office in Freistatt, Missouri. The Commission, in a four-to-one decision with Chairman Goldway dissenting, ruled that the appeal was “untimely” because it was filed a few days late. (The whole Freistatt story is here.)
Even though it had been clear for a long time that the community intended to appeal, as demonstrated by letters to the PRC and Senator Roy Blount and by the diligent efforts of town clerk Debbie Schoen, the Commissioners decided a rule is a rule and the rule says that people have thirty days to file an appeal. No exceptions.
Never mind that the Postal Service posted the original notice of closure stating the deadline for filing appeals in Stotts, Missouri, a town several miles from Freistatt and a place where Freistatt residents were unlikely to see the notice. Never mind that the Postal Service posted another notice in Monett, a town eight miles away and also a place where few were likely to see it.
Never mind that when the final determination notice was finally posted in Freistatt itself, it was taped to the back of the cluster box units where residents now receive mail. Who was going to see it there? None of these notices was prominently displayed in a place or location where Freistatt’s residents would be likely to find it.
Mrs. Schoen filed the appeal on behalf of the residents of Freistatt some four to seven days late, depending on which of the notices you start the clock from. In her motion for late acceptance of the appeal, Mrs. Schoen explained that the town looked to her as the person to file the appeal but that a family emergency had delayed her filing.
The PRC did not find the explanation compelling. In language unsympathetic and dismissive, the Commission’s ruling says that any member of the town could have picked up the gauntlet and filed the appeal in a timely matter.
Perhaps the commissioners are simply products of a Washington culture where lawyers are as common as cherry blossoms in the spring. With their backgrounds in political operations and government bureaucracies, they seem inured to the legal jargon and particularity of formatting required by their agency.
The Freistatt case raises many compelling questions. There were serious issues about how the Postal Service proceeded with lease negotiations that led to an emergency suspension. There were issues with the administrative record filed by the Postal Service : it was incomplete, and letters addressed to Freistatt residents about their concerns with the closure were never sent, even though the record indicates they were. There were also questions about how the PRC handles documents and treats citizens appealing the loss of their post office.
We’ll never get answers to any of those questions. We don’t even get to ask them.
In responding to one part of the appeal, the Commission acted as if it was magnanimous. It found the Postal Service acted unconscionably when, after bullying the residents into accepting cluster boxes instead of a post office or regular rural delivery, it made the residents wait several weeks before installing the cluster boxes. Like a second-grade teacher scolding a naughty student, the PRC gave the Postal Service a virtually meaningless verbal hand slap —“Bad agency don’t do that again.” As if the Postal Service is even listening.
The tagline at the bottom of “Save the Post Office” is a quote from Senator Jennings Randolph: “When the post office is closed, the flag comes down. When the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”
In Freistatt the Postal Service left no doubt as to its intentions – it cut down the flagpole. In its decision to dismiss Freistatt’s appeal, the Commission left no doubt where it stood – the law is the law, time limits are time limits, and despite precedent and frequent exception, there would be no relief for Freistatt. More to the point, the PRC let every town and individual in this country know that they don’t stand a chance of preserving the postal services that are important.
As Congress moves forward in its discussions of postal reform, it is becoming increasingly clear that the voices of the powerful and well connected are the only ones that are going to be heard. The PRC’s decision on Freistatt sends a clear message: common sense will take a back seat to legal nitpicking, and average Americans shouldn’t expect to get a fair hearing on postal issues.
Chairman Goldway should be commended for her dissent, but hers is a lonely voice in an increasingly sad chorus of lonely voices bemoaning the fate of a great public institution.
[Mr. Jamison is a retired postmaster and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office; his articles are archived here. He can be reached at [email protected]]
(Photo credit: Lady Justice)