Wednesday, June 24, 2020
A sharply divided three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today ordered Judge Emmet Sullivan to dismiss the criminal case against Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI. This is hardly the final word, though: the extraordinary ruling is sure to go to the full circuit, and perhaps even the Supreme Court.
Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI as part of the FBI's investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. He pleaded guilty--twice, before two different federal judges--and agreed to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation. The court deferred sentencing to allow Flynn to continue to cooperate.
Flynn then moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that the government failed to produce exculpatory evidence. Most recently, DOJ came across material that, according to the government, means that the prosecution can no longer prove the charge. So the government moved to dismiss the case.
Judge Sullivan appointed an amicus to represent the no-dismissal side, invited other amici to weigh in, and set a hearing date on the motions--all to determine whether he should grant "leave of court" to dismiss. (That's the standard under a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss a criminal charge.) (Judge Sullivan had serious concerns about the government's motion, given the many, many irregularities in the case.)
Then Flynn filed a writ of mandamus in the D.C. Circuit, and the government weighed in to support it. Note that Judge Sullivan had not yet even held the hearing on the motion to dismiss, much less denied it.
(Just gotta say it: Wow. Not your usual federal prosecution.)
Today the D.C. Circuit ruled for Flynn and ordered the prosecution dismissed. Judge Rao wrote the majority opinion, which concluded that Judge Sullivan committed clear legal error. Moreover, by ordering dismissal without a hearing or further consideration by the lower court, the court said that the district court had no role under the Rule 48(a) "with-leave-of-court" standard.
Judge Rao started by noting that a prosecution's motion to dismiss is entitled to a presumption of regularity. But the court wrote that Judge Sullivan raised nothing to challenge this presumption, or to show that this was the kind of case that warranted a hearing or further judicial inquiry into the motion. As such, the court concluded that Judge Sullivan went beyond his authority in appointing an amicus and scheduling a hearing. Again: All this before Judge Sullivan even held the hearing, much less ruled against dismissal.
Judge Rao explained in separation-of-powers terms:
In this case, the district court's actions will result in specific harms to the exercise of the Executive Branch's exclusive prosecutorial power. The contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion, interfering with the Article II charging authority. Thus, the district court's appointment of the amicus and demonstrated intent to scrutinize the reasoning and motives of the Department of Justice constitute irreparable harms that cannot be remedied on appeal.
Judge Rao seemed to try to leave open some room for a district court to determine whether to grant "leave of court" on a Rule 48(a) motion to dismiss. But if this case doesn't fit the bill (again, with all its irregularities), it's not clear what would.
Judge Wilkins dissented. In short:
This appears to be the first time that we have issued a writ of mandamus to compel a district court to rule in a particular manner on a motion without first giving the lower court a reasonable opportunity to issue its own ruling; the first time any court has held that a district court must grant "leave of court" pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) without even holding a hearing on the merits of the motion; and the first time we have issued the writ even though the petitioner has an adequate alternative remedy [that is, appeal after a denial of the motion to dismiss], on the theory that another party [the government] would not have had an adequate alternative remedy if it had filed a petition as well. Any one of these is sufficient reason to exercise our discretion to deny the petition; together they compel its rejection.