Something had to give.
Southwest Airlines had an airport full of people holding tickets to fly from Dallas to Houston and not enough planes to carry them.
The only choice was to pick out a block of passengers and leave them behind, and that's exactly what the over-subscribed airline did one Friday last September.
It could not have made a less propitious choice. For among those left at the gate -- in fact, they were removed from a Houston-bound plane -- happened to be 20 Texas state judges, returning with their spouses from a judicial conference in Amarillo.
There are people in this world who, when bumped, would not bump back. Texas judges are not among them.
The group has slapped a lawsuit on Southwest accusing the airline of "false, misleading and deceptive acts and practices, misrepresentation and breach of contract."
The judges are demanding that Southwest pay them damages, but they have set no specific figure. In a letter sent to Southwest, the jurists said that they had suffered actual damages "in excess of $100,000," and the suit contends that the judges are entitled to at least triple that amount.
To make certain that their motives are not questioned, the judges have announced that any money collected will be given to charity.
They don't want to get rich off this," said Eugene A. Cook, the Houston lawyer representing the jurists. "They just want the airline to stop treating people this way. What Southwest did isn't right."
Southwest officials Monday refused comment because they had not seen a copy of the suit, which was filed in a civil court in Houston on Friday.
The judges selected Cook as counsel in part because he was bumped from a Southwest flight several years ago and sued and collected $3,500. He finds that the airline industry as a whole suffers from a "deity complex."
"The basic position of the industry is they can do anything they want to, anytime they want to, to anyone they want to," he said. "We want to show that passengers are not cattle."
Consumer activist Ralph Nader was the first person to successfully argue that point after being bumped form an Allegheny Airlines Washington-to-Connecticut flight in 1972. Nader won $25,000 for himself and an equl amount for the group that sponsored his visit; it remains the largest award granted by a court in a bumping case.
The judges insist that their suit was filed as a matter of principle, not pique.
"We are liable to be misunderstood on this," said District Judge Sam Robertson, one of the plaintiffs. "The last thing we would want is people to be thinking, 'Well, those damn judges think they're better than everybody else and want to be treated differently.'
"There's not one of us who feels that way."
But at least one used his judicial clout to draw attention to the group's plight -- he called a Dallas newspaper with a tip that 20 judges were stranded at the airport. He did not mention that two of the eminent jurists were engaged in a high-decibel conversation about whos fist would make contact with a particular Southwest employe's jaw first.
"I guess we were pretty hot," one protagonist said as he recalled the moment.
When a reporter showed up and started asking questions, the situation changed drastically. The airline tried feeding the judges. It arranged for a special plane to take them to Houston, albeit five hours late. The judges were not appeased.
"They initially treated us like ordinary passengers -- until it sunk in what they were dealing with," said District Judge David Hittner. "But by then it was too late."
The next week, airline executives visited judges in their chambers. Southwest's board chairman wrote to each judge who had been bumped, and even some who hadn't, offering "profound and abject" apologies.
That didn't work either. The judges want their day in court -- on the other side of the bench.