Wednesday, March 5, 2014
In Kaley v. United States (12-464, decided February 25, 2014) (see here), the Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote extended the rulings of United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989) and Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989) by determining that a grand jury finding of probable cause that a federal defendant committed a crime was conclusive in any effort by that defendant to secure funds out of temporarily restrained assets to hire a private attorney of his choice. A defendant seeking release of funds may still be able to challenge the grand jury determination that there was probable cause that the assets seized resulted from or were involved in the purported criminal activity, but not that the activity was criminal.
The opinion, written by Justice Kagan, exalts the inviolability of the grand jury and demonstrates a naive misunderstanding of (or lack of concern about) the reality of its role in the determination of probable cause, ignores the presumption of innocence, and denigrates the importance of independent defense counsel in the criminal justice system. It tilts the playing field of justice in the government's favor by giving the government, in some cases, the option to deprive the defendant of the counsel he has selected or intends to select.
Essentially, the premise of the opinion is that since grand juries historically have the unreviewable power to determine probable cause to indict and require a person to stand trial and thus derivatively to deprive him of pre-trial liberty, they similarly have the power derivatively to deprive him of his right to counsel of choice. Justice Kagan, worrying that a different decision would be incongruous and unsymmetrical, seems more concerned with the effect of the decision on the pillars of architecture of the criminal justice system than the pillars of justice and fairness.
The underlying (but unspoken) foundation of the opinion is essentially fraudulent: the legal fiction that federal grand juries actually make independent, considered determinations of probable cause necessary to indict. Every experienced federal prosecutor, defense attorney, or judge knows otherwise; grand juries, especially federal ones, are virtually invariably merely "rubber stamps" for the prosecution. The government -- not the grand juries -- makes the actual decision who and for what to indict.
Former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously said, "A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich" -- referring to a grand jury in a state where prosecutors are constrained because they know that judges are mandated by law upon defense motion to review the grand jury minutes to determine whether the evidence presented was legally sufficient and to dismiss the indictment if not, and where hearsay evidence is not admissible. In contrast, in federal courts, as stated in Kaley (quoting United States v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36, 54 (1992)), "a challenge to the reliability or competence of the evidence supporting a grand jury's finding of probable cause will not be heard" (and an indictment may be, and sometimes is, based wholly on hearsay, often from a single government agent). A federal prosecutor thus has no such constraint as his New York State counterpart; he knows that no matter how flimsy or inadmissible the evidentiary basis for an indictment may be, that basis is unchallengeable. Thus, if a New York State grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, a federal grand jury would indict a slice of bread.
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Chief Justice Roberts, to my knowledge the only current justice who had a significant career representing paying clients and thus may have greater empathy for the private bar than most of his colleagues, wrote a powerful dissent noting the basic lack of fairness allowing the prosecution essentially to disqualify an accused's counsel of choice without even a hearing. He wrote:
[F]ew things could do more to undermine the criminal justice system's integrity than to allow the Government to initiate a prosecution and, then, at its option, disarm its presumptively innocent opponent by depriving him of his counsel of choice -- without even an opportunity to be heard. . . . [I]t is fundamentally at odds with our constitutional tradition and basic notices of fair play. . . .
The issues presented here implicate some of the most fundamental precepts underlying the American criminal justice system. A person accused by the United States of committing a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But he faces a foe of powerful might and vast resources, intent on seeing him behind bars. That individual has the right to choose the advocate he believes will most ably defend his liberty at trial. . . .
In my view, the Court's opinion pays insufficient respect to the importance of an independent bar as a check on prosecutorial abuse and government overreaching. Granting the Government the power to take away a defendant's chosen advocate strikes at the heart of that significant role.
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Following Monsanto, which explicitly left open the question as to whether a hearing on the provenance of seized funds was required, the federal courts divided on the issue. Some prosecutors had chosen to allow defendants to pay from restrained funds reasonable and legitimate fees to counsel of choice. Most had done so in order to avoid giving the defendant a preview of their case; others had done so out of respect for the constitutional right to counsel and a robust adversary system -- a right apparently not as much respected by the Court majority -- and a preference for a fair fight where the accused is not hampered by denial of his choice of counsel.
The elimination of the requirement in many courts for what was called "a Monsanto hearing" (a term likely to be soon forgotten) will undoubtedly eliminate, or at the very least severely limit, the opportunity for defendants in federal courts to pay counsel of choice from seized funds. Prosecutors who had chosen to allow defendants to pay counsel from restrained assets in order to avoid discovery of their cases will no longer have that reason to do so. Those who used the avoidance of discovery as a cover out of respect for the constitutional right to counsel of choice or the adversary system will no longer be able to do so. Pre-trial forfeiture claims will now in some cases offer a prosecutor a potential bonus beyond the stated goals of depriving a defendant of wrongfully-gained assets and using them for governmental purposes -- the elimination of a top-notch adversary. Thus, there is now a tactical trial benefit to the prosecutor to institute pre-trial asset restraint. In white-collar cases, where the prosecutor often knows who will probably represent the defendant from pre-indictment discussions, his determination to seek pre-trial restraint may be affected by whether he likes or dislikes the attorney, whether the attorney is dogged and aggressive, or whether the attorney is likely to give the defendant a better chance of success than a replacement.
The Kaley decision will also have a severe harmful effect on the finances of an already financially-distressed private middle-class (other than big-firm) criminal defense bar, which will (as will large firms) be deprived of a considerable number of well-paying clients because of lack of available assets outside of those seized. Defendants -- generally either drug or white-collar defendants, those who had a considerable amount of money prior to pre-trial seizure -- will be deprived of representation by the most experienced and successful criminal defense lawyers. They will be represented by court-appointed public defenders, institutional or private appointed attorneys, or less expensive private attorneys -- often, but not always, experienced, dedicated and able, but generally less so than high-profile, high-paid private attorneys, and almost always with more cases and clients and less time and resources to devote to them than well-compensated private attorneys (and it is unlikely that government funding will be increased to provide public defenders those resources). The ability, energy and knowledge of who represents them will often depend on the luck of the draw from assigned counsel lists, rather than their considered choice. The gulf between counsel of choice and public defenders is greatest in white-collar cases since few public defenders have experience in these cases, or ample resources to defend them.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts alluded to, but failed to state explicitly, the general disparity between the selected best of the private bar and the average (and an assignment-by-rotation system necessarily leads to the mean or average) public defender or assigned attorney. It is unfashionable (and politically incorrect) for judges (and bar leaders) to say or write anything that might be construed to disparage public defenders (and perhaps provide ammunition to ineffective assistance claimants). Rather, they, as did Chief Justice Roberts, often speak of "counsel of choice" when they mean "the private bar." Lawyers -- whether chosen or assigned -- are not fungible. Just as there is a difference in quality between a $300,000 Bentley and a $15,000 Toyota Corolla, there is usually a difference in quality between an attorney who commands large fees because of her reputation and stature and the average assigned attorney. (To be sure, like automobiles, there are lemons and diamonds among both the expensive and the inexpensive.)
As Chief Justice Roberts said, "The possibility that a prosecutor could elect to hamstring his target by preventing him from paying his counsel of choice raises substantial concerns about the fairness of the entire proceeding." Just as a basketball team opposing the Miami Heat might choose, if it could, that LeBron James sit out the game, so too a prosecutor, if he could, might now choose to seek pre-trial restraint to keep a first-rate private lawyer on the bench.