John K. Lauber, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, is a stickler for precise language, particularly in cockpits where misunderstandings can kill. But his opinion of the language recently used by one of the board's administrative law judges led to an exchange of the type seldom seen in the bureaucracy.
The commotion began with a case involving a Southwest Airlines pilot who was accused of taxiing while passengers were standing in the aisle. Administrative law judge Joyce Capps recommended suspension of the pilot's license for seven days, and the board agreed.
But Lauber added this note: "Frankly, reliance on the work of the administrative law judge in this case is difficult because the trial proceedings are marred by numerous remarks by the judge in her initial decision that appear, at least in lifeless print, to be insensitive, injudicious and thoroughly gratuitous."
Capps, to put it mildly, took offense.
In a letter to Lauber, she wrote: "Your immature putdown of a judge with almost 17 years on the bench in a written document that will be read by a large segment of the aviation legal community makes one wonder how you can be so egotistical as to think that anyone gives a rat's ear what you, a layman, think about the manner and delivery of the oral decision in question or any other decision issued by any of our judges. It is simply irrelevant."
The letter upbraided Lauber for "gross and public display of ignorance" and "unprofessional and irrelevant remarks."
Through a spokesman, Lauber declined to comment, so it is not possible to say precisely what language Lauber found offensive in Capps's oral opinion. However, a reading of the opinion produced a few possibilities:
In discussing the passenger who brought the complaint, Capps said that she "was assigned a boarding pass number 42, which meant that after a first boarding of kids and cripples and stuff like this that she was the second big group to be allowed to board the plane."
"It is first come, first served, and, you know, you just have to grab a seat or take some little old lady out of her seat and punch her out."
In discussing why she didn't give the captain a 30-day suspension, Capps said he "was honest with me. God! I think somebody like that should be rewarded and at least get something out of it. If he had tried to buckle on me and snowball me, I might have affirmed the 30 days. I don't know."
Capps acknowledged being "colorful" but she said she takes her job seriously. The administrative law judges, once called hearing examiners, are employees of the board and are protected by civil service regulations.
She said she had grown tired of remaining silent while Lauber and others engaged in "judge bashing."
"I just had enough of it," she said. "That's all."
As for her use of language, she said that oral opinions inevitably contain language that is less judicial than that found in written opinions.
"It's not like Oliver Wendell Holmes sitting back and ruminating about something for months," she said.