U.S. senators grilled President Donald Trump's pick for the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) blasting nominee Neil Gorsuch's controversial 2016 opinion in the so-called "Frozen Trucker Case."
The facts of the case were not in question. In January 2009, truck driver Alphonse Maddin was carrying cargo in Illinois for TransAm Trucking when the brakes on his trailer froze. He reported the incident to TransAm and, after waiting several hours in the sub-zero temperatures for help, he unhitched the trailer filled with cargo from the truck, and drove away. TransAm fired him for leaving the trailer on the road — and the case went to court.
Eventually, TransAm Trucking Inc. v. Administrative Review Board of the U.S. Department of Labor made it to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and federal Judge Gorsuch.
Two of the three judges on the court agreed with the Department of Labor that TransAm violated the law by firing Maddin. Gorsuch, however, wrote a dissenting opinion in favor of the company.
"Indeed, his employer gave him the very option the statute says it must: once he voiced safety concerns, TransAm expressly — and by everyone’s admission — permitted him to sit and remain where he was and wait for help," Gorsuch wrote. "The trucker was fired only after he declined the statutorily protected option (refuse to operate) and chose instead to operate his vehicle in a manner he thought wise but his employer did not."
Franken called that opinion "absurdity" and referenced his former comedy career (he was once a Saturday Night Live cast member).
“Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity,” Franken said. “And I know it when I see it. And it makes me — you know, it makes me question your judgment."
Here are three things you need to know about the "Frozen Trucker Case":
1. The heater in the truck was broken.
Maddin reported the frozen brakes to his employer at 11:17 p.m. While waiting for repairs, Maddin found that the "bunk heater" in the cabin of the truck wasn't operational — meaning there was no heat in the truck. Meanwhiile, the temperature was below freezing. Running a truck wastes fuel, and Maddin originally stopped because he couldn't find the TransAm mandated gas station to fill his tank.
2. Maddin's speech started to slur and his body was numb.
Maddin fell asleep in the truck while waiting for help, but his cousin Gregory Nelson called him two hours after reporting the frozen brakes at 1:18 a.m. Nelson testified that Maddin's speech was slurred on the phone, and Maddin said he soon realized he couldn't feel his feet and his torso was numb — so he called TransAm dispatch again, but wasn't given a time for arrival. Although we don't know if Maddin had hypothermia for sure, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that "prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures" can affect the brain, "making the victim unable to think clearly or move well." Slurred speech and shivering are also listed as symptoms.
3. Maddin told his supervisor he was having trouble breathing.
About 30 minutes after making a second call to TransAm, Maddin called his supervisor and said he was having trouble breathing and couldn't feel his feet. His supervisor told him to put the heater on and stay with the trailer, despite Maddin telling him it was broken. The supervisor later wrote him up for leaving the trailer behind.
Gorsuch said he relied upon a strict interpretation of the law.
Gorsuch has been referred to as an "originalist," like the deceased Antonin Scalia, meaning he seeks to interpret the Constitution as written, and as he perceives its writers as wishing it to be interpreted. In the "Frozen Trucker" case, Gorsuch said the law did not protect Maddin because he chose to operate his truck in a way the company forbids.
Gorsuch wrote that whether TransAm was good to Maddin is irrelevant with respect to whether or not the company broke the law.
"It might be fair to ask whether TransAm’s decision was a wise or kind one," Gorsuch wrote. "But it’s not our job to answer questions like that. Our only task is to decide whether the decision was an illegal one."