In Garfield Heights yard-sign case, Finney Law Firm clinches third win at United States Supreme Court
It takes knowledge of the law to be a good attorney, certainly. And we also must be diligent and responsive in the practice of law. But occasionally it takes a few more things to take the practice of law to the “next level” and “make a difference” for our clients: Creativity, knowledge of the shifting landscape of a developing area of the law, triangulation to understand how to navigate through the Courts and tremendous persistence.
Our firm’s Constitutional Law Team recently notched its third win at the U.S. Supreme Court in 18 months. In order to do so, our attorneys certainly had to be knowledgeable of the law, diligent in the pursuit of the case, and responsive to our client each step of the way. But in Frank Wagner v. Garfield Heights our team had something more. It had deep knowledge of the cases ascending to the high Court, and understanding that the area of law in which we were practicing — First Amendment jurisprudence — was fast-developing. We had the creativity to understand that by positioning our case as a “me too” to a case already accepted by the Supreme Court, we could thread the impossible-to-thread needle in having the High Court accept our case. And we had the persistence, through years of litigation and appeals, to see the case through to the highest level.
We congratulate our team leader for this case, Curt Hartman, for navigating this case through trial, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and then to a stunning victory at the United States Supreme Court.
The case started in 2011, when our client Frank Wagner was cited for placing a 4’ x 4’ sign in his yard (above) criticizing his local member of City Council. The City claimed to prosecute Wagner because of the size of the sign, not its content, but (i) it allowed for dozens of 2’ x 2’ signs, but outlawed the single larger sign, and (ii) discriminated against political signs in various districts of the City. We positioned the suit against Garfield Heights as both an illegal “time, place and manner” restriction (i.e., the irrational restriction on the size of the sign) and an unconstitutional “content-based” restriction.
The trial Court sided with us on the content-based basis, and ruled for Wagner. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, looking to the intent of the content restriction, found for the City, and thus our client had lost.
In late 2014, we were confronted with throwing in the towel, or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, where more than 99% of appeals are sent to the graveyard of never-heard pleas.
But we knew something — the Supreme Court only weeks earlier had accepted a case from Arizona — in which a Church was placing directional signs on Sunday morning promoting their Church services. It addressed the same content-based issue our case did — what did the City intend with the restriction And the issue was — did the intent matter, or was the simple content discrimination enough. That case — Reed v. Town of Gilbert, AZ — was heard at oral argument in January of 2015. So, we filed a “me too” petition in the Wagner case, raging that if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Pastor Reed in the Arizona case, they should also rule for Wagner in the Ohio case.
And they agreed. At a conference in March of 2015, the Court held its conference — the same type of session where 99% of cases are sent to the graveyard — and … did not rule. They neither accepted the Wagner case nor dismissed it. But this inaction was a huge win for our client, as we knew that they were holding Wagner pending decision in Reed.
And that’s what happened. In June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pastor Reed, and found the City’s sign ordinance unconstitutional. And ten days later they held a second conference on the Wagner case, and “vacated” the decision of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and “remanded” the matter back to them for further action consistent with their Reed decision.
In short, Frank Wagner won.
“I would not have prevailed in this case if I just had good lawyers,” said Plaintiff Frank Wagner. “Rather their detailed understanding of developing law, their creativity in positioning the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and their persistence through years of appeals, brought home this victory for me and the citizens of Garfield Heights, Ohio.”
We are deeply proud of our Constitutional Law Team, and the win they achieved in this case, as it is a victory for this client, but we are also pleased that they advanced the mantra of our firm in “making a difference,” which we seek to do for every client.