Bright Line Rule

Bright Line Rule

A judicial rule that helps resolve ambiguous issues by setting a basic standard that clarifies the Ambiguity and establishes a simple response.

The bright line rule exists to bring clarity to a law or regulation that could be read in two (or more) ways. Often a bright line is established when the need for a simple decision outweighs the need to weigh both sides of a particular issue.

In the case of Knight v. Avon Products 2003, SJC 08876, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established a bright line rule for Age Discrimination. The plaintiff, who was over 40 years of age, was terminated from her position and claimed that her termination was the result of discrimination based on her age. The person who was hired to replace the plaintiff, however, was only 28 months younger. The defendant argued that the plaintiff's age played no role in the termination decision, adding that 28 months is an insignificant difference. A trial court disagreed, but the high court agreed with the defendant. The court then went on to establish a bright line figure of five years or more for a valid age discrimination suit to be launched.

The court arrived at this figure because it realized that to do otherwise could leave employers open to lawsuits if they replaced a worker with someone who was only two years younger. To avoid endless argument, the five-year figure was established. If there was a pattern of discriminatory behavior toward an employee, it might be possible to see a two- or three-year difference as enough to tip the balance against that employee. In the general course of employment issues, however, the court felt that this particular bright line would set a useful guideline for both employees and employers.

In Ohio v. Robinette 519 U.S. 33, 117 S.Ct. 417, 136 L. Ed. 2d 347, 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a bright line rule established by the Ohio State Supreme Court. Robinette was stopped by a deputy sheriff for speeding. He complied with the deputy's instructions; he handed over his driver's license and stepped out of the car. A computer check of the license came up clean, and the deputy merely warned him not to speed again. Then he asked Robinette whether he had any drugs in his car. Robinette replied no and the deputy asked if he could search the car. Robinette agreed. The deputy found some marijuana and a pill that appeared to be a controlled substance, and he arrested Robinette.

Robinette pleaded no contest and was found guilty, but the Ohio Court of Appeals reversed his conviction because he had been unlawfully detained. The Ohio Supreme Court, citing the Fourth Amendment, agreed and established the bright line rule that claimed the police were required to tell a citizen he was free to go before they could obtain a voluntary search consent.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision, concluding that the Fourth Amendment had not been violated. Robinette had been lawfully detained for speeding, and the deputy had the right to ask him out of the car. As for the bright line rule, the Court rejected that as well. Under the Fourth Amendment, consent to a search must be voluntary, but being told one is free to go is not the sole criterion for determining whether the search is voluntary. Thus, the bright line established by the state court was not valid. Interestingly, one justice noted that the state court might have been able to establish a valid bright line rule if it had based the rule on state rather than federal law, since states have the freedom to impose stricter restrictions on police activity than the federal government's restrictions.

The case of Federal Election Commission v. Christian Action Network 110 F. 3d. 1049 (4th Circuit 1997) upheld a bright line rule established earlier that protects free speech. The Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Action Network for using its corporate funds to pay for a television commercial that attacked President bill clinton and Vice President al gore for their support of Gay and Lesbian Rights. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, it is illegal for a corporation to use treasury funds to campaign for or against a specific presidential candidate. The U.S. Supreme Court later stated that to ensure the law did not violate free speech, it had to follow a bright line: As long as a corporation did not use certain words in its communications, those communications, were protected and lawful. The words include "vote for," " vote against," "cast your ballot," "defeat, reject," and "support."

None of the bright line words appeared in the Christian Action Network's commercial. It may have been unwelcome and, for many, offensive, but it did not violate any election campaign regulations. The bright line rules in this case were established to ensure that there would be no political Censorship. The Supreme Court differentiated between speech that advocated issues and speech that advocated election results.

Further readings

O'Dell, Larry. 1996. "FEC Again Loses Case against Group That Ran Ads on Clinton." Virginian Pilot Ledger-Star (August 4).

Willing, Richard. 2000. "Police to Get Broader Authority on Stops." USA Today (January 13).

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