May 14, 2013
Brady Violation Leads to Arrest of Former Texas Prosecutor
Prosecutors who have committed Brady violations, even those which have been later demonstrated to have resulted in wrongful convictions and lengthy terms of imprisonment for persons later proven innocent, are rarely prosecuted. Courts tend to find Brady violations inconsequential, prosecutor's offices generally defend or at the least refuse to acknowledge them, disciplinary committees overlook them, and defense lawyers, out of timidity and self-interest, rarely press for sanctions. One notable exception to this general disregard by institutions and the bar is DOJ's commendable effort, at the moment thwarted by a questionable administrative law decision, to sanction prosecutors in the Senator Ted Stevens trial (see here and here).
The State of Texas, whose criminal justice system is often disparaged by commentators and defense lawyers, recently took a giant step in holding prosecutors sanctionable for egregious Brady violations. A Texas judge, acting as a court of inquiry, under Texas law, after a hearing ordered the arrest of a current Texas state court judge, Ken Anderson, for contempt and withholding evidence from the court and defense attorneys when Anderson was a District Attorney prosecuting Michael Morton, who was recently demonstrated to be actually innocent for the murder of his wife for which he served 25 years of a life sentence. See here.
The inquiry judge, District Judge Louis Sturns, found probable cause to believe that Anderson had concealed two crucial pieces of evidence: a statement by Morton's three-year old son that Morton was not home at the time of the crime and a police report which revealed that an unknown suspicious man had been seen on several occasions stalking the Morton house.
For denying to the trial judge that there was exculpatory evidence and for failing to provide a full copy of a police report demanded by the judge, Anderson was charged with tampering with evidence, tampering with a government document, and contempt. The most serious charge, evidence tampering, carries a maximum prison term of ten years, far short of the 25 years Morton served.
Criminal prosecution of prosecutors for Brady violations has been to my knowledge totally or almost totally nonexistent. Thirty-five years ago I drafted a proposed New York State statute criminalizing intentional and knowing Brady violations. As expected, the proposal went nowhere. The statute, as I wrote it, had such strict scienter requirements that the crime was virtually unprovable. It was written more to stress to prosecutors the seriousness of such misconduct than to lead to actual prosecutions. The Anderson prosecution, if it occurs, may fill that function.
September 13, 2012
Strong Language to Court Clerk Leads to Jail
Cursing has become a common part of the speech of many Americans, and the f-word is frequently used in its non-sexual meaning as a stronger substitute for "hell" to emphasize the speaker's extreme displeasure or anger, as in "get the f--- off." However uncivil, even if used in inappropriate settings, the mere utterance of the word is unlikely to lead to arrest or imprisonment, in large part because of First Amendment protection.
Apparently, however, using such a word in complaining to a federal court clerk about the judge, even outside the presence of the judge, may be treated more seriously. As reported in the National Law Journal (see here), Robert Peoples, a disgruntled and seemingly difficult pro se plaintiff, after learning that a South Carolina district judge had summarily dismissed one of his cases because of his lateness to court, outside the presence of the judge told a clerk that the judge should "get the f--- off all my cases." The next day the judge initiated a criminal proceeding for contempt.
At a bench trial before a judge from a different district, the defense contended that Peoples' statements did not obstruct the administration of justice. The trial court rejected that argument, finding that Peoples' behavior had affected the administration of justice because "courtroom personnel . . . were temporarily delayed in conducting their routine business" in order to deal with him. Peoples has appealed to the Fourth Circuit, where the matter is sub judice.
It is doubtful that Peoples would have been prosecuted but for his use of a four-letter word. If merely complaining about a judge to a clerk, even vociferously, so that a clerk temporarily abandons her work constitutes contempt, many pro se litigants, and some lawyers, might be doing jail time.
The contempt power is a privilege special to judges, a vestige of the extraordinary ceremonial stature afforded them, as exemplified by the bailiff's order that all rise to honor the judge's entrance into a courtroom, the enthronement of the judge in a seat higher than all others, and the clerical black robe. The contempt power is sometimes used, and not infrequently abused, especially in the lower state courts, to jail summarily a difficult litigant. In my view, it should rarely, if ever, be employed to punish an unruly litigant not engaging in physical violence and if so only after due warning. Indeed, many judges I know proudly claim that they have never held a litigant (or attorney) in contempt.
The limited issues raised by the defendant in his brief to the Fourth Circuit do not concern whether judges deserve this special treatment. Nor does the appeal concern any matter of special or constitutional importance, including any that might free up use of the f-word, or limit punishment for doing so. Lawyers and litigants should still be careful to control their language in complaints about judges to court personnel.
June 28, 2012
AG Holder's Response to Contempt Vote
So let's see - President Obama wins on the health care decision with the Supreme Court, and later the same day the Attorney General is held in contempt of Congress. So which item ends up at the top of a blog. Was this political?
May 25, 2012
Statement of Williams & Connolly on DOJ's "Laughable" Punishment of Ted Stevens's Prosecutors
The Statement of Williams Connolly LLP, through Rob Cary, Brendan Sullivan, and Simon Latcovich, truly speaks for itself. We will have more to come on the DOJ's actions.
November 30, 2011
Brady Again: Some Thoughts
Judge Emmet Sullivan's Order in relation to the Stevens case summarizing some of the findings of the special report by Hank Schuelke and William Shields was reported last week by my editor Ellen Podgor here and discussed in depth by my co-editor Solomon Wisenberg here. I add some thoughts on Brady violations in general.
First, as Mr. Wisenberg points out, few Brady violations are intentional. Although there are some rogue prosecutors who deliberately conceal what they know is information which would be beneficial to the defendant, the vast majority of Brady violators are well-meaning prosecutors who in their focus on their proof do not realize that certain information would be helpful to the defense.
Second, Brady is counterintuitive. Requiring a participant in any contest to provide information to his adversary which will decrease his chance of winning goes against the grain. Expecting a prosecutor who believes that such information is merely a means of enabling a guilty person to get off (since the material in question presumably has not changed the prosecutor's mind that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt) to provide it to his opponent is even more problematical.
Third, Brady violations are not uncommon, although few are revealed. Since Brady violations are done in secret and the concealed evidence is unlikely ever to reach the light of day, most are undetectable. As Judge Sullivan's Order notes, many of the Brady violations in the Stevens case would never have been revealed but for the exhaustive investigation by the court's appointed investigators. And, this case, it should be remembered, involved a U.S. Senator represented by Brendan Sullivan, a superb, highly-respected and aggressive lawyer, and an outstanding law firm with considerable resources, not an overwhelmed court-appointed attorney with limited time and resources.
Fourth, as Mr. Wisenberg notes, prosecutors are rarely punished for Brady violations. Most judges either ignore the violations or gently chide the prosecutors. DOJ internal reviews of alleged prosecutorial misconduct are viewed by defense lawyers and many judges as whitewashes. Disciplinary committees historically have treated errant prosecutors gently in the few cases of prosecutorial misconduct of which they become aware, and prosecutions of prosecutors for obstruction of justice and the like for withholding evidence are virtually nonexistent.
Fifth, the legal standards for Brady disclosure are confused. Most prosecutors and judges think of Brady material as "exculpatory" material, that is, something that might have a significant impact on the determination of guilt, a standard that, to most prosecutors, eliminates all but a very few items of evidence. In fact, what should be disclosed is evidence "favorable" to the accused, a much broader category than "exculpatory." Additionally, many prosecutors believe that the standard used by reviewing courts to determine whether non-disclosure of Brady evidence requires reversal -- whether it is "material" -- is the proper standard to be used by a trial prosecutor in the initial disclose-or-not determination. "Materiality" in this context is essentially a "harmless error" standard of review used to decide whether the withheld evidence mandates reversal, not the standard to determine whether to disclose in the first instance. Just as a prosecutor's argument in summation may be improper, even if unlikely to result in reversal, concealment from the defense of favorable evidence is improper, even if not so serious that it later will be found "material" by an appellate court.
In sum, under current conditions, Brady just doesn't work. More explicit guidelines, as recently published by DOJ, will help, as would standing court orders making a violation contemptuous (as has seemingly not happened in Stevens) and stronger punishments for violations by judges, prosecutorial agencies, and disciplinary committees (and perhaps also a statute criminalizing deliberate and knowing Brady violations). But, in the end, the only real solution to Brady violations may just be, as Mr. Wisenberg suggests, open discovery in criminal cases.
November 23, 2011
Some Further Thoughts On Judge Sullivan's Order
My colleague Ellen Podgor recently commented here on Judge Emmet Sullivan's 11-21-11 ORDER in In Re SPECIAL PROCEEDINGS, the ancillary proceedings initiated by Judge Sullivan to investigate the multiple Brady violations committed by DOJ prosecutors in U.S. v. Theodore Stevens. The ensuing investigation was conducted, on Judge Sullivan's behalf, by veteran DC lawyers Hank Schuelke and William Shields, who have now issued a report that is, I hope, only temporarily under seal.
It is obvious from reading his Order that Judge Sullivan is still outraged. That's a good thing. Until enough federal judges get hopping mad about systemic DOJ Brady violations, we will have no real legislative discovery reform at the federal level.
In addition to the points highlighted by Professor Podgor, Judge Sullivan's Order notes the following findings and conclusions by Schuelke and Shields:
1. "[T]he investigation and prosecution of Stevens were 'permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated his defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government's key witness.'"
2. "[A]t least some of the concealment was willful and intentional, and related to many of the issues raised by the defense during the course of the Stevens trial."
3. Schuelke and Shields "found evidence of concealment and serious misconduct that was previously unknown and almost certainly would never have been revealed--at least to the Court and to the public--but for their exhaustive investigation."
4. Schuelke does not recommend criminal contempt proceedings, because "in order to prove criminal contempt beyond a reasonable doubt under 18 U.S.C. [Section] 401 (3), the contemnor must disobey an order that is sufficiently 'clear and unequivocal at the time it is issued'... [but] no such Order existed in this case. Rather, the Court accepted the repeated representations of the subject prosecutors that they were familiar with their discovery obligations, were complying with those obligations, and were proceeding in good faith."
5. "Mr. Schuelke also notes that '[i]t should go without saying that neither Judge Sullivan, nor any District Judge, should have to order the Government to comply with its constitutional obligations, let alone that he should feel compelled to craft such an order with a view toward a criminal contempt prosecution, anticipating its willful violation.'"
6. "Mr. Schuelke 'offers no opinion as to whether a prosecution for Obstruction of Justice under 18 U.S.C. [Section] 1503 might lie against one or more of the subject attorneys and might meet the standard enunciated in 9-27.220 of the Principles of Federal Prosecution.'"
It is clear that most or all of this Report is going to be publicly released. It will be interesting to compare it to DOJ OPR's report, assuming that DOJ decides to release it. Two attorneys for two of the prosecutors under scrutiny have already announced that OPR's report clears their respective clients. DOJ has a long history of ignoring the critical comments of federal judges. The latest example of this took place in reference to the prosecution of former Blackwater employees. Despite Judge Ricardo Urbina's scathing factual findings regarding the conduct and credibility of the original set of prosecutors, they were treated to a laudatory/fawning DOJ press release upon reassignment. Urbina, like Sullivan, is one of the most respected federal judges in the country and his factual findings were not questioned or disputed on appeal.
Some final thoughts.
1. For every Emmet Sullivan (or Ricardo Urbina or Howard Matz) there are 10 federal judges who unquestioningly accept the Government's representations regarding Brady issues, irrespective of non-frivolous matters brought to their attention by the defense bar.
2. The defense attorney has an obligation to ferret out Brady issues through the filing of detailed, fact-specific Brady motions closely tied to the formal allegations in the case.
3. We must rapidly move toward open discovery in the federal criminal system, with appropriate safeguards in place to protect witnesses where necessary. The presumption, however, must always be in favor of open discovery. Many states have gone this route without any disastrous consequences. It is appalling that civil litigants have substantially more access to discovery at the federal level than do people who are literally fighting for their liberty.
4. In the meantime, federal prosecutors must be relieved of the burden of determining whether exculpatory information is material. DOJ already recommends this in the Ogden Memo, but it should go one step further and require it. The rule should be: IF IT HURTS MY CASE IN ANY WAY, TURN IT OVER! When a man judges himself, the verdict is always in his favor. When a federal prosecutor, in the heat of trial or pretrial battle, is deciding whether exculpatory evidence is material, the verdict will too often be that it is not. Let's end this invitation to injustice.
5. Of course, federal prosecutors do not think like criminal defense attorneys. That's okay. We don't want them to! But this is the very reason why they cannot ultimately be trusted to make the determination of what is or is not exculpatory. The competent defense attorney headed to trial or sentencing is constantly thinking about anything that will help the defense. Prosecutors are not trained or inclined to do this. Even when they are trying to fulllfil their Brady obligations, AND THE VAST MAJORITY OF FEDERAL PROSECUTORS ARE TRYING TO DO THIS, they cannot be trusted to spot the issues. This difference in outlook/inclination/thought processes really comes to the fore during the period leading up to sentencing hearings, when the prosecutor looks at the defense attorney like a deer in the headlights when reminded of his/her obligation to provide any and all mitigating evidence!
6. Please. Let's have no more: "We understand our Brady obligations and intend to abide by them." Congress should pass a statute requiring some form of detention for any prosecutor who utters this bromide.
November 23, 2011 in Contempt, Corruption, Current Affairs, Government Reports, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, Legal Ethics, Media, Obstruction, Perjury, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
July 30, 2008
Contempt Citation Against Karl Rove
James Rowley & Robert Schmidt, Bloomberg, U.S. House Panel Votes to Hold Karl Rove in Contempt
But one headline that can't go unnoticed is Dublin's RTE News - 'Bush's brain' faces contempt charge
(esp) (blogging from SEALS '08 in Palm Beach, Florida)
March 01, 2008
Mukasey Refuses to Proceed Against Bolten & Miers
Professor Peter Henning here, had raised the issue of whether AG Mukasay would issue a contempt citation against Bolten and Miers. And we now know the answer. Dan Eggen of the Washington Post writes, Mukasay Refuses to Prosecute Bush Aides. It seems that Attorney General Mukasey is taking the position that Bolten and Miers refusal to comply with a congressional subpeona does not constitute a crime.
Check our Scotus Blog - Congress's Contempt Power: Law, History, Practice and Procedure
Talkleft in July wrote here
This places the ball back in the Congressional hands - and the issue will be whether they force the issue with Mukasey or move onto the courts for a remedy.
December 30, 2007
Fifth Circuit Rules on Executing Administrative Warrants
John Wesley Hall, at FourthAmendment.com tells of a recent OSHA case that held that "[t]here is no constitutional right to a pre-execution contempt hearing and that administrative warrants, like criminal warrants, can be executed by means of reasonable force." Attorney Hall talks about the recent Fifth Circuit decision in Trinity Marine Products v. Chao which held that:
"Over the objection of Trinity Marine Products, Inc. ("Trinity"), but pursuant to an administrative search warrant, compliance officers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") inspected a workplace owned by Trinity and issued citations. Trinity claims that the search violated the Fifth Amendment because OSHA threatened to arrest Trinity personnel who interfered with the search, but the constitutionally required method to execute administrative warrants when the targeted party refuses to acquiesce is to commence a civil contempt proceeding, which OSHA did not do.
An administrative law judge ("ALJ") heard and rejected Trinity’s argument. Trinity petitions for review. Because Trinity’s contention finds no support in the Constitution or precedent, we deny the petition."
December 27, 2007
How Not to Respond to a Malpractice Verdict
Being accused of legal malpractice is not much fun, so being found liable has to be much worse. But to then try to avoid the judgment by filing for bankruptcy and using other subterfuges can result in a criminal prosecution for contempt, as one New York lawyer discovered. In a case that shows some people have an aversion to honesty, the lawyer -- a freshly minted law school graduate from two years earlier -- gave a rather inflated view of his credentials to attract the client, and then proceeded to file the lawsuit after the limitations period for the suit expired. From there, according to a New York Law Journal article (here), the client filed a malpractice claim and won a judgment of nearly $400,000 in 1999; in the meantime, the lawyer was disciplined by the state bar. Then came the bankruptcy filing to avoid the judgment, which was rejected, and later an agreement by the lawyer to sell his firm and make arrangements to pay the former client the judgment, which he then violated by not making the required payments. U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, who had presided over the case since 1997, finally referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a contempt prosecution. She has now sentenced the lawyer to a two-year probation plus spending six nights in community confinement. Judge Cote did not fine him because she wants all his money going to pay the judgment. At the sentencing, the lawyer is reported to have said, "I'm not sure exactly what to say except that I am sorry." I'm not sure exactly what else could have been said, because any attempt at an excuse might have sent the Judge through the roof. A fair question can be asked whether the attorney should remain a member of the bar. According to the records of the New York State Unified Court System (search here), he remains a member in good standing of the New York bar. Talk about giving lawyers a bad name. (ph)
December 14, 2007
Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Contempt Citations for Rove and Bolten
The Senate Judiciary approved by a 12-7 vote -- Senators Specter and Grassley joined the ten Democrats in favor -- contempt citations (here) for former White House aides Karl Rove and Josh Bolten for their refusal to produce documents or even appear before the Committee as part of its investigation of the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys in 2006. The contempt citation for Rove sets forth the crux of the dispute over Executive Privilege:
WHEREAS, Mr. Fielding, in an August 1, 2007 letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member, informed the Committee that the President would invoke a claim of executive privilege and a claim of immunity from congressional testimony for Mr. Rove, and directed Mr. Rove not to produce responsive documents or testify before the Committee about the firings, and that Mr. Rove would not appear in response to the Committee’s subpoena;
WHEREAS, Mr. Rove refused to appear or to produce documents or to testify at the Committee’s August 2, 2007, hearing in compliance with the subpoena;
Bolten, the President's former chief of staff, has the dubious honor of also being named, along with former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, in the earlier contempt citations approved by the House Judiciary Committee over the same claim of Executive Privilege. Whether either side on Capitol Hill seeks a full vote of the chamber to authorize the contempt remains to be seen. Of course, all Congress can do in these citations is ask the Department of Justice to pursue the case. Whether or not Attorney General Mukasey would authorize a contempt proceeding remains an open question. (ph)