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7th Circuit overrules itself in satellite TV case

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled one of its own decisions from 20 years ago, finding that judges have discretion in whether penalties are imposed on those who steal encrypted television satellite signals or help others take them without paying for the service.

Deciding today in the case of DirecTV v. David Barczewski and Jonathan Wisler, Nos. 06-2219 and 06-2221, the three-judge appellate panel mostly affirmed a ruling from then-U.S. District Court Judge David F. Hamilton from the Southern District of Indiana.

The case goes back to jury verdicts against Jonathan Wisler and David Barczewski, who respectively had intercepted encrypted signals from the company’s satellite system without authorization and furnished devices to help others steal the signals. Both defendants bought electronic gear from a merchant that had advertised its products designed to help facilitate the theft of those signals and both participated in online discussion groups about decrypting those signals without paying.

But the case also involves penalties imposed by the District judge, and that’s a legal issue more significantly addressed in this case that the appellate court heard arguments on in February 2007. While affirming Judge Hamilton’s decision, the appellate judges found that one of its own decisions from 1990 that Judge Hamilton relied on wasn’t correct in finding that judges are mandated to give out maximum damages calculated under 18 U.S.C. §2520(c)(2), which says, “courts may assess as damages” involving the use of satellite signals taken without payment or permission.

In Rodgers v. Wood, 910 F.2d 444, 448 (7th Cir. 1990), the appellate court in Chicago held that the highest penalty calculated under that federal law section is mandatory – effectively leaving District judges without any discretion about whether or not damages should be assessed and that those should be imposed at the highest level.

The Rodgers ruling was the nation’s first appellate decision on that issue of statutory penalties being mandatory or permissive after Congress in 1986 overhauled that section of federal law. Specifically, Congress revised the language from “shall” to “may” in assessing those damages. Since then, other Circuits have analyzed that issue in the past 15 years and disagreed with Rodgers - the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 11th Circuits have held that §2250(c)(2) allows judges to not award damages.

Now, the 7th Circuit is following suit.

“Developments that leave this Circuit all by its lonesome may justify reexamination of our precedents, the better to reflect arguments that may not previously have been given full weight and to spare the Supreme Court the need to intervene,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the panel that also included Judges Joel Flaum and Diane Sykes. “We overrule the portion of Rodgers holding that award of the maximum damages specified in §2250(c)(2) is mandatory. We conclude that the District Court has discretion not to award statutory damages under the statutory formula.”

Dismissing what the defendants argued, the panel wrote that the federal statute doesn’t require judges to set penalties according to wealth and the economics don’t matter.

“District judges have discretion to consider other reasoned approaches too; there is latitude in the word ‘may.’ The District judge used that latitude to give Barczewski the lowest available penalty,” Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote. “But judges need not go easy on hourly wage-earners who decide to steal TV signals, any more than they need to go easy on people who choose other forms of theft to supplement the family budget. People who do not want to pay the market price for goods or services must refrain from theft and cannot complain if the price of crime is steep.”

The case is remanded to the Southern District on the issue of statutory damages against Wisler.
 

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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