Wednesday, April 22, 2015
An en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Bonds, reverses the obstruction of justice conviction against then professional baseball player Barry Bonds finding insufficient evidence of materiality under the statute, 18 U.S.C. s 1503. The decision is per curiam, with several concurring opinions, and one dissent.
Hon. Kozinski, joined by Judges O'Scannlain, Graber, Callahan, and Nguyen commence with a single question - "Can a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness support a conviction for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. s 1503? In answering this question, they speak about how "[s]tretched to its limits, section 1503 poses a significant hazard for everyone involved in our system of justice, because so much of what the adversary process calls for could be construed as obstruction." They continue to state that "[b]ecause the statute sweeps so broadly, due process calls for prudential limitations on the government's power to prosecute under it." The limitation they place is a requirement of materiality. They find materiality lacking here.
The next concurring opinion also speaks to a requirement of materiality, finding that "a single truthful but evasive or misleading statement can never be material." Hon. Reinhardt's concurring opinion simply says that a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness cannot support a 1503 conviction.
And although Hon. Fletcher disagrees with the rationale, focusing on the word corruptly in the statute finds it insufficient here.
Only Hon. Rawlinson does not want to second guess the jury decision and doesn't want to rely on perjury law as some of the concurrences did. The jury was instructed on materiality and that should be sufficient.
What fascinates me about this case is whether everyone is in the same ballpark. For all the reasons provided by everyone other than the dissent, one should not have an obstruction conviction based on this limited statement. But most imply that materiality is an element of obstruction. I have argued in a past Article that it should be - here. And it is wonderful to see so many on this court adhering to that position and taking this point as a given. But the statute may not be as clear and the law as consistent as it should be. This case is important for taking this important step and demonstrating the absurdity of a conviction that fails to have materiality as a key component.