Tuesday, June 28, 2016
McDonnell v. United States and Arthur Andersen v. United States are remarkably similar Supreme Court reversals. In both cases, aggressive federal prosecutors pushed obviously dubious jury instructions on all-too-willing federal district judges. In Arthur Andersen, Enron Task Force prosecutors convinced Judge Melinda Harmon to alter her initial jury charge, defining the term "corruptly." Judge Harmon's charge was right out of the form book, based on the approved Fifth Circuit Pattern Criminal Jury Instruction. The Government's definition allowed conviction if the jury found that Andersen knowingly impeded governmental fact-finding in advising Enron's employees to follow Enron's document retention policy. The 5th Circuit Pattern's requirement that the defendant must have acted "dishonestly" was deleted by Judge Harmon and the jury was allowed to convict based on impeding alone. Thus, at the government's insistence, knowingly impeding the fact-finding function replaced knowingly and dishonestly subverting or undermining the fact-finding function. This effectively gutted the scienter element in contravention of the standard Pattern definition. Local observers were not surprised by Judge Harman's ruling. Her responses to government requests are typically described as Pavlovian. Judge James Spencer, the trial judge in McDonnell, is also an old pro-government hand. Generally well regarded, he was a military judge and career federal prosecutor prior to ascending the judicial throne. In McDonnell, the government's proposed jury instructions regarding "official act" flew in the face of the Supreme Court's Sun Diamond dicta. They were ridiculously expansive, with the potential to criminalize vast swaths of American political behavior. In both cases, Andersen and McDonnell, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. In both cases, careful attention to the law, even-handedness, and a willingness to stand up to the government would have saved taxpayer dollars and prevented human suffering. Careful attention to the law, even-handedness, and a backbone. That's what we expect from an independent federal judiciary.