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15 Years Later, Ex-Congressman Gary Condit Decides to Lie About His Relationship With Chandra Levy

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By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

Ok, so it’s an election year where both sides in the presidential race have been endlessly accusing one another of lying. Perhaps, having been out of the game for a while,  former Congressman Gary Condit, a blue dog Democrat from California, feels left out and has the itch to lie, too.

I’m referring to his high-profile interview on Dr. Phil this week in which he insisted that he had a platonic relationship with intern Chandra Levy. He says police tried to frame him.

“I saw her one time outside the office, at a restaurant, and she came by my condo once,” Condit said of Levy on Dr. Phil. “Maybe twice. Yeah, I think it was twice she came by. Once again, I want to make this clear: There’s nothing unusual about someone coming by my condo. A lot of people did. People have made some speculation that that means something special … Both times she had a valid reason to come by.”

While at the Washington Post, I was one of the lead reporters who covered the tragic disappearance of Chandra Levy in 2001 and the discovery of her skeletal remains in 2002 in Rock Creek Park in northwest D.C.

Back in 2001, I first reported that Condit, during his first interview with D.C. police, admitted that Levy, who was from his California Congressional district, had slept over his apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. She was a 24-year-old intern with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Condit was then asked by police: So you were having an affair, to which he replied: “You figure it out.” At the time, details of the police interview were confirmed by five sources.

As the summer wore on, D.C. police and the FBI insisted that he was not a suspect. But they continued to investigate him, and follow up with interviews. He was certainly a person of interest, though there were some in law enforcement who felt strongly that he did not harm Levy.

Still, things weren’t going so well for Condit. The public was suspicious. (The next year he lost his bid for re-election).

His handlers, including the very aggressive and able Washington lawyer, Abbe Lowell, decided it would be best for him to take to the airwaves and clear things up.  ABC’s Connie Chung was granted the interview, which was a big get at the time.

On Aug. 23, 2001, the interview aired. It was a disaster.

Chandra Levy

Chandra Levy

A source who knew Condit told me that he was supposed begin the interview by reading a statement and admitting that he had an affair with Levy. The thought was that such candidness would give him credibility when he denied having anything to do with her disappearance.

Instead, he decided to forgo the statement and answer Chung’s questions.

It was a public relations nightmare. I watched the interview in the newsroom in near shock. I couldn’t believe he was being so evasive.

Chung asked if he had anything to do with her disappearance.

He responded: “No, I didn’t.”

She eventually got around to asking about the relationship.

CHUNG: Can you describe your relationship? What exactly was your relationship with Chandra Levy?

CONDIT: Well, I met Chandra … last, um, October. And we became very close. I met her in Washington, DC.

CHUNG Very close, meaning …?

CONDIT: We had a close relationship. I liked her very much.

CHUNG: May I ask you, was it a sexual relationship?

CONDIT: Well, Connie, I’ve been married for 34 years, and I’ve not been a … a perfect man, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. But um, out of respect for my family, and out of a specific request from the Levy family, I think it’s best that I not get into those details uh, about Chandra Levy.

If there were a time to plead his case, and deny having the relationship, it would have been then. But Condit knew better. So did the public.

Chung, who knew she had a ratings winner, pressed on. It was the biggest story of the summer.

CHUNG :  What we’re talking about is whether or not you will come forward to uh, lift this veil of suspicion that seems to have clouded you. Can you tell us … did you have a romantic relationship with Chandra Levy?

CONDIT:  Well, once again, I’ve been married 34 years. I have not been a perfect man. I have made mistakes in my life. But out of respect for my family, out of a specific request by the Levy family, it is best that I not get into the details of the relationship.

CHUNG:  Can you tell me this: was Chandra Levy in love with you? Were you in love with her?

CONDIT:  Well, I don’t know that she was in love with me. She never said so. And I was not in love with her.

CHUNG: Did she want to marry you and have your child?

CONDIT:  I only knew Chandra Levy for five months. And in that five months’ period, we never had a discussion about a future, about children, about marriage. Any of those items never came up in that five-month period.

CHUNG:  Did you ever make promises to her?

CONDIT: Never.

CHUNG: Did she want you to leave your wife?

CONDIT:  No. I mean, I’ve been married for 34 years, and I intend to stay married to that woman as long as she’ll have me.

And, oh yes, by the way, if there’s still any doubt,  investigators recovered a pair of  Chandra Levy’s underwear with Condit’s semen.

Condit has now written a book on his experiences titled: “Actual Malice: A True Crime Political Thriller.”

Obviously, he’ll sell more books if he’s viewed as a victim rather than a married Congressman full of b.s. who carried on an affair while his dutiful wife stayed back home in Modesto, Calif.

Eventually, the focus shifted to Ingmar Guandique, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador,  who ended up being convicted of Levy’s murder in 2010. He was  sentenced to 60 years in prison, but the conviction was tossed and a new trial was ordered. In July, shortly, before the trial was to begin, the U.S. Attorney’s Office  dropped the charges, saying it couldn’t prove the case.

Some people still think Guandique did it. After all, he had previously attacked female joggers in the park before Levy disappeared.

But others are once again asking: Who killed Chandra Levy?

The Supreme Court, Police Shootings and Black Lives Matter

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Have the frenzied media coverage of incidents involving police shootings of African Americans and the protests of Black Lives Matter activists affected the Supreme Court?  The Court has not addressed a case involving race and the criminal justice system in some time, but two such cases are scheduled for oral argument this month.

Coincidence or a legitimate attempt to weigh in on a crisis jeopardizing law enforcement lives and the faith of minority Americans in the fairness of the criminal process?

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The Court exercises discretion in at least three ways: what cases to accept for hearing (only about 1% are heard), the timing of oral argument (these cases were set for the first month of the 2016-2017 term), and in the individual votes and opinions of the Justices). The first two seem to demonstrate a special sensitivity to this subject which is embroiling race relations in America.

However, the other related question is whether the open seat on the Court from the death of Justice Scalia will affect the Court’s ability to decide these cases and to resolve conflicts in the lower courts. A 4-4 vote will mean that the lower court decision will stand. In these two cases the lower courts both rejected the petitions of minority defendants on racial issues.

The first of the two cases is Buck v. Davis, a death penalty appeal which has bounced around the Texas state courts, the federal district court in Houston and the 5th Circuit since Buck’s sentence of death in 1996. Buck was convicted of capital murder of his ex-girlfriend and a man at her house in a jealousy-fueled shooting spree. During the penalty hearing his defense attorney, who had a notoriously bad record in capital cases, called a psychologist to testify on the subject of Buck’s likelihood of posing a danger in the future.

In Texas the jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant poses a danger of violence to warrant the verdict of death. The defense psychologist testified that the fact that he was Black made him statistically more likely to be dangerous. Ultimately, however, the psychologist was of the opinion that he was at a lower probability of being dangerous. His report, which included the race analysis, was admitted as a defense exhibit. The prosecutor reiterated this race opinion in cross-examination and the witness’s conclusion in his closing argument.

On the most recent appeal, the 5th Circuit concluded that, although racial appeals had long been unconstitutional in criminal trials, the defendant had not met the standard of a substantial showing of prejudice to justify a Certificate of Appeal. There had been no proof that the result would have been different without the expert’s testimony in view of the defendant’s callous actions and his lack of remorse. The defense showing on appeal was not extraordinary and the prejudice de minimis.

This particular psychologist had repeated this race-based statistical opinion in six other capital cases, and the Texas Attorney General announced in a press conference that it would not oppose re-sentencing in all of those cases. However, a new Attorney General reneged on this promise as to Buck’s case.

In addition to the race-based issue, the case illustrates the tension in capital cases between two important principles. In cases involving the death penalty errors in the trial are painstakingly reviewed and appellate opinions often reach to achieve due process. On the other hand, there is a need for finality in the resolution of criminal cases. The length of time capital defendants sit on death row today is considered by some to be a failure of finality in the system.

Read more »

Supreme Court Opens the Term with Criminal Case Arguments

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

US_Supreme_Court

The Supreme Court opens the 2016-2017 term on Monday with only 8 Justices because of the death last spring of Justice Scalia. The conventional wisdom is that the Court will do its best to avoid the confusion of 4-4 voting splits by postponing controversial cases another Justice is confirmed. Of course that is not always possible, particularly when the case had already been accepted while the Court was at full strength or when a case is unavoidable. An example of the latter would be a voting controversy after the Presidential election such as the 2000 case which confirmed George W. Bush’s election. God forbid the only thing that could make this election any crazier.

The Court has broad discretion in deciding what cases to accept for decision. Certiorari is granted in only about 80 of the 8,000 odd petitions that are filed. Oral arguments occur about 5 or 6 days a month from October to April. After the argument the Justices meet privately and take a preliminary vote. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he will assign the author of the opinion. If he is in the minority, the senior Justice does so.

October’s case selections are somewhat unusual in that of the 8 cases scheduled for argument, 6 of them are criminal. Moreover, one of the two civil cases involves an issue of the liability of law enforcement agents who are sued for unconstitutional searches. Usually criminal cases comprise a third or less of the full opinion docket, about half that number of oral arguments in a month.

The first case scheduled for oral argument in the term, Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado v. US, involves a Puerto Rican Senator and businessman convicted of bribery in connection with gifts (Las Vegas boxing match tickets) provided to the Senator who then proceeded to vote in favor of legislation which benefitted the businessman. However, during the same prosecution, the jury also acquitted the two of other charges directly related to the issue of bribery. The verdict was irreconcilably inconsistent. On appeal the substantive bribery convictions were vacated due to erroneous instructions. The government seeks to re-try the vacated counts.

The issue before the Court is whether the factual conclusions underlying the acquittals should work to preclude the retrial under the Collateral Estoppel doctrine of the Double Jeopardy Clause. That is, should the jury’s acquittals prevent the government from retrying the defendants a second time on the charges of the vacated convictions?

As a general rule the government cannot re-litigate fact issues resolved against it in a previous prosecution. However, an exception to this rule is made in the case of inconsistent verdicts. The question is whether vacated convictions can be considered under double jeopardy to decide if the verdicts were inconsistent.

Four amicus briefs have been filed in support of the defendants’ arguments. The appeal is a prime example of why amicus briefs should be read to fully understand the issue and what is at stake in the case. One of them in particular filed on behalf of the Cato Institute is a good example of this practice ignored by most lawyers who follow Supreme Court cases. It was authored by Cato’s counsel on the appeal, David Debold, and it presents a thoughtful and erudite discussion on why the history of double jeopardy should preclude the re-trial on the vacated counts. Those of us who have worked beside Mr. Debold can only smile appreciatively at his use of an obscure theory of quantum physics to explain his point that a vacated conviction does not exist legally and so cannot be used to support the proposition that the verdicts are inconsistent.

However persuasive the theory of the defense argument, the fact remains that juries in the United States have always been able to render inconsistent verdicts based on irrational considerations, compromises, or desires to reduce the punishment involved. Or just to get the hell out of the jury room. If some part of a jury agrees to vote to return completely inconsistent verdicts out of a desire to end an interminable jury service, to effect a compromise with the other part of the jury, or because they believe they will be cutting the defendant a break, they have always had a historical right and power to do so. Nullification acquittals by juries to avoid a mandatory death penalty by the theft of a loaf of bread only a couple centuries ago are a related example of this time-honored principle.

Prediction: The defendants’ convictions will be affirmed. The defendants have to prove that the jury necessarily decided the factual bribery issue by their acquittals on some counts, but this is impossible when the verdicts are inconsistent. The general authority of prosecutors to retry a conviction after it has been set aside on appeal because of trial error is so entrenched in the criminal justice system that even a skillful argument on the protections of double jeopardy will not persuade the Court to abandon the practice.

The second case, Shaw v. US, also to be argued on Tuesday, involves the question of whether, in the bank-fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, subsection (1)’s “scheme to defraud a financial institution” requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive, but also to cheat, a bank, as nine circuits have held, and as petitioner argues. That seems like it should be a simpler issue than the former case, but it is one which has bedeviled the Courts of Appeals for years.

A minority of the Circuits, 3 of them, hold with the government’s argument that the statute requires only proof of an intent to deceive the bank in connection with something of value, even if the bank suffers no harm, no loss of a monetary value. The defendant counters with the Circuit majority that there must be proof of an intent to improperly obtain property owned by the bank, not just the property of one of its customers. But how should “property rights” be interpreted, narrowly as the bank’s own assets, or more broadly, as assets owned or possessed by the bank, as it holds deposits by its customers?

Both sides argue that the plain meaning of the statute supports their interpretation, but if there is one thing I have learned practicing law, nothing is ever plain when lawyers are arguing.

Shaw openly admitted in his trial that his intention was to cheat one of the bank’s customers out of the $300,000 he stole through a fraudulent Pay Pal scheme and that the government would have gotten a conviction if it had charged under the correct statute. Only the customer and Pay Pal lost money, not the bank. But should the statute require that we parse a thief’s state of mind as to the technical issues of bank law which surround reimbursement by a bank of lost depositor assets?

Prediction: The Court will affirm the defendant’s conviction. But don’t bet the mortgage money on this prediction. Safe money would go the other way as 9 Courts of Appeal have chosen to go. But I have always thought that, once I deposit my meager government pension check, those dollars now belong to the bank subject to its obligation to return part of it at the ATM machine (“hit the buttons” as my friend Jim King is wont to say).

The next column will discuss two of the remaining October oral arguments. Both involve aspects of one of the current important issues of the day—whether African American and Latino defendants can get a fair shake in the American criminal justice system. Were the Justices motivated to decide these cases early in the term, perhaps to weigh in on the controversy?

Who says Justices don’t watch the evening news? The question is, is it Fox or MSNBC?

 

Robin Hood in Reverse — A $1.1 Million Scam

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By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

In 2005 Female Jones (not her real name), an indigent woman living in public housing in Ann Arbor, Mich., discovered she wasn’t eligible for federal housing assistance. The reason she wasn’t eligible was because it appeared she was already receiving “Section 8” voucher payments. Jones wasn’t aware of receiving any assistance. So it was assumed that there was a bureaucratic snafu, but an investigation revealed something far more nefarious.

Section 8 vouchers are so-called because they are authorized under Section 8 of the Federal Housing Act of 1937, part of the New Deal legislation designed to help people suffering the effects of the Great Depression. In 1974 the Housing Act was amended to create the Section 8 voucher program. Low income people would be eligible for vouchers that would pay a percentage of their rent in approved housing facilities. The money for the program would be provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but the program would be administered by the state and local public housing agencies.

There was only a limited amount of funding available. So not all eligible people would receive vouchers. In Michigan a waiting list existed and waits of 3-6 years were not uncommon.

Greg Stejskal

Greg Stejskal

The voucher payments were made directly to the indigent tenants’ landlords to minimize the opportunity for fraud. Housing voucher agents working for the state prepared the application forms for the indigent applicants. These agents obtained background information and determined whether the applicants met the eligibility requirements.

Female Jones’ caseworker determined that she was enrolled in the Section 8 program, and voucher payments were being sent to Washtenaw Payee Services, a company that appeared to receive Section 8 payments on behalf of several landlords in Washtenaw County. Because the woman was unaware of the payments, and they were not being received by her landlord, the caseworker reported the problem to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

MSHDA’s initial investigation indicated there might be some fraudulent activity. As the Section 8 program is federally funded, they reported their concerns to the FBI, and a joint FBI/MSHDA investigation was begun.

Although Washtenaw Payment Services (WPS) appeared to have an office with a street address, it turned out to be a private mailbox service which is often a red flag in a fraud investigation.

The bank records for WPS were obtained via subpoena. Those records showed that WPS was formed in 1990 when LaToya Cotton filed business papers with Washtenaw County and opened a bank account. Since 1994, about 11 years, WPS had been receiving Section 8 voucher payments ostensibly for landlords of low-income tenants enrolled in the program.

The striking thing was the founder of WPS, LaToya Cotton, was a Michigan housing agent responsible for enrolling prospective low-income applicants for Section 8 vouchers. But even more troubling, it didn’t appear that any money had been paid from the WPS account to any landlords on behalf of the Section 8 enrollees.

LaToya Cotton became a Michigan housing agent for MSHDA in 1994. Very soon thereafter she concocted her scheme.

Prior to becoming a housing agent Cotton had setup the WPS account for a legitimate purpose. But after becoming an agent and enrolling applicants for the Section 8 program, she designated WPS as the recipient for some of the applicants’ landlord payments. When the WPS applicants were approved for Section 8 payments, Cotton didn’t tell them they had been approved. Rather, she told them they were not approved, or that they were on the waitlist. None of those enrollees were ever aware that they had been approved for Section 8 payments.

In September 2005, the FBI obtained a search warrant for Cotton’s office. The records seized revealed that during the 11 years that Cotton was a housing agent, she enrolled 100s of Section 8 applicants. Of those applicants she designated WPS as the recipient of landlord payments for about 40 of the enrollees. Cotton would periodically change the WPS enrollees, removing some and adding others. At the time her office was searched, she had eight enrollees whose voucher payments were going to WPS.

All of the money paid into the WPS account was used by Cotton for personal expenses. Over the 11-year period of the fraud, the total amount paid into the account was $1,051,701. She purchased cars, went on vacations. In April 2004, Cotton purchased a 5,237 square foot home for $830,000.  MSHDA figured that the amount embezzled by Cotton could have subsidized housing for 50 families for more than four years.

In January 2006, in front of US District Court Judge Patrick Duggan (The father of current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan – ironically the mayor has been trying to turn Detroit around after it has been racked by years of public corruption.), Cotton pleaded guilty to a federal indictment charging her with theft from a federally funded program.

Judge Duggan in May 2006 sentenced Cotton to three and a half years incarceration, three years supervised release and ordered her to pay $1.1 million in restitution.  (Cotton’s house was forfeited and sold with the proceeds used to pay a portion of the restitution.)

At the time I was quoted as saying, “She (Cotton) was living in a mansion and there were low-income people on the Section 8 waiting list. It was Robin Hood in reverse.”

 

DEA Misses Opportunity to Bring Rationality to Hemp Laws

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By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Overlooked in the firestorm reaction to DEA’s decisions last week declining to re-schedule marijuana was its decision not to alter the enforcement policy on industrial hemp cultivation and sale. To me this was a lost opportunity to bring some rationality and sense to one small part of the Cannabis quagmire which has resulted in the anomalous situation in which half the country has legalized pot for one purpose or another with the federal government continuing to consider it a Schedule I illegal substance.

I thought that the Acting Administrator’s and the agency’s decision on marijuana was a reasonable response. People think that keeping it in the highest schedule is an inflexible insistence that it belongs among the most dangerous drugs. It is not. It merely follows the Controlled Substance Act’s definition that it has not been scientifically proven that it has a currently accepted medical use and poses an acceptable risk. The fact that 25 state legislatures have authorized its medical use is not sufficiently reassuring to me to ignore the recent preliminary studies that it can be a risk to health, particularly for the growing brains of adolescents and young adults.

DEA has authorized 354 individuals and institutions to conduct research on this question, and when that research produces some answers then the decision to re-schedule it can proceed. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement and prosecutors have been forced to walk the tightrope on enforcement particularly in states where its use is otherwise legal.

But I thought DEA whiffed it on the hemp decision. For those unfamiliar with hemp, it is a variety of Cannabis Sativa L and so, even though it has miniscule amounts of the psychoactive THC (below .3%), it was swept up by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Thus came the end of a long history of promising and profitable commercial and agricultural uses.

La_Roche_Jagu_chanvre_1

Versatile Hemp

Hemp was used in the Neolithic Age in China to make paper more than 10,000 years ago. Its hardy nature and versatility spread its cultivation until it became one of the most produced agricultural plants in the world. Its uses ranged widely from ropes on ships, clothing, food, and dozens of other products. It is claimed that Columbus’s ships’ riggings, the Gutenberg Bible, the paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written, and the first American flag were all made of hemp products. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers.

During World War II hemp was used to make uniforms and for other military products. The government considered it so important to the war effort that it produced a film entitled “Hemp for Victory” in 1942. Some irony there.

Today, 30 countries in the world still allow industrial hemp cultivation, and some, like France, Great Britain and Canada, report that in the last two decades it has made a resurgence and that today’s hemp economy has increased by several times. Canadian farmers in particular would be unhappy if their southern neighbor lifted its prohibition. Hemp enthusiasts today claim that the product has an unlimited economic future. With climate change assaulting farmers all over the world, crop versatility becomes increasingly important to their futures as well.

Read more »

How U-M Football Coach Bo Schembechler Inspired FBI’s First Probe Into Steroids in Sports

This column first appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer. It’s being republished with his permission.

By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

Featured_stejskal-and-bo_22400The late Bo Schembechler (left) and Greg Stejskal.

In reading recent accounts of state-sponsored use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), primarily by Russia, I was struck by how quickly it was decided that the FBI would open an investigation. There hasn’t always been a keen interest in pursuing criminal investigations of PEDs in sports. Arguably, that interest began in Ann Arbor.

In 1988, when I was an agent in the FBI’s Ann Arbor office, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler asked me to come to his office. Since 1982, I had been making presentations to Bo’s players about sports gambling, drugs, and violence against women.

Now he and Mike Gittleson, the Michigan strength and conditioning coach, wanted to discuss their concerns about the use of anabolic steroids by football players. These synthetic versions of testosterone have very limited legitimate medical uses–but the coaches were seeing athletes who abused them, taking dangerously high doses to promote abnormal growth and strength.

It wasn’t just college players. The coaches told me that even the high school players they were seeing in Michigan’s summer instructional camp were asking not whether they should use steroids but when they should start.

Bo knew the sale and possession of nonprescription steroids had recently been made a felony under federal law. He wanted to know what was being done to enforce the law. I told him I didn’t know but would find out.

Read more »

The Wrap Up of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Criminal Cases for 2015-16, Including the Decision on Ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Corruption Case

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

Ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell

Ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The Supremes spent a very busy June and completed opinions on six difficult criminal cases, as well as three important civil cases and several others totaling 24 opinions as of June 27th.

That constitutes more than a quarter of the opinions for the entire year. The Court did, of course, have other business, several hundred certiorari petitions to review for next term’s docket, in-chambers opinions (applications to stay proceedings etc.), orders, and a few per curiam opinions deemed not to be worthy of full, authored opinion. The Justices have, for the most part, cleared the deck so that they can visit the grandchildren.

The Court rounded off the term on criminal cases by vacating the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in a convincing unanimous opinion that not only restored his career hopes but also those of hundreds of legislators who feared the government’s interpretation of Hobbs Act bribery would make politics as usual a dicey business.

The Court narrowed the definition of “official acts” and “pending question or matter” such that the standard assistance of constituents provided by politicians could not result in a career-ending indictment.  The Court did not go so far as to completely end McDonnell’s worries. It remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to review his claim that the evidence was insufficient, thus requiring dismissal of the charges. Even if he overcomes that hurdle or the Justice Department decides not to re-try the case, the question is whether future voters will forgive the First Couple’s receipt of $175,000 in shopping sprees and luxury vacations from someone who got essentially zero for his generosity.

As expected, the Court also vacated the judgment in Williams v. Pennsylvania, a capital case in which the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to recuse himself from ruling on a habeas petitioner’s appeal. What makes this action remarkable is that the Chief Justice, in his position as district attorney, had been involved in the criminal case by authorizing the decision to seek the death penalty and in supervising the case generally as head of the office. The vote, however, was closer than expected, 5-3, in reviewing this egregious behavior by former Chief Justice Castille. The dissent’s distinction was that the appeal involved a habeas decision, not the criminal phase of the case and occurred after Castille had left the prosecutor’s off ice. The state’s argument did not, however, pass the smell test, whatever artificial distinctions could be drawn.

In contrast, the Court ruled unanimously, 8-0, to reverse the 9th Circuit’s dismissal of the conviction in United States v. Bryant. The case held that tribal court domestic assault convictions could be valid predicates in a federal habitual offender prosecution, even though the prior convictions were without counsel. This was not a 6th Amendment violation since the right to counsel does not apply in this misdemeanor context in tribal courts. A victory for serially battered Native American women.

It was a tough month for Puerto Rico. Another prediction whiff by this column occurred in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle. Apparently a vestige of Yankee imperialism lives on since the majority found that Congress, not the Puerto Rican people, was the historical source of the territory’s authority to enforce criminal laws. This meant that Puerto Rico is not sovereign in the same way that Indian tribes or the states are. Therefore the illegal firearms prosecution by local prosecutors was barred under Double Jeopardy after the Justice Department did a quickie prosecution for the same offense while the Puerto Rican case was awaiting trial.

For my money, Justice Breyer’s dissent had it right that all three branches of the federal government had returned that authority to the people of Puerto Rico when a self-governing Constitution was authorized. This broke any chain of authority going back to Congress. Yet another reason for statehood.

Then the Court piled on a week later when it struck down a Puerto Rican civil law as unconstitutional under the federal bankruptcy law. The case disallowed the attempt by Puerto Rican public utilities to restructure a $20 billion debt over the objections of creditors. Without a way to reduce its enormous debt, the case threatens the government’s ability to provide transportation and clean water to the public. Unlike say Detroit, Puerto Rico had been excluded from the Bankruptcy Code by Congress in 1984. Look for a renewed bail out plea by Puerto Rico to Congress.

In Taylor v. United States the Court rejected the defendant’s clever defense to a Hobbs robbery charge that he only intended to rob those who dealt in locally grown marijuana, and thus had no effect on interstate commerce. Not much left of this element in the context of drug dealing victims since all drug dealing affects the economy.

Without Justice Scalia as a partner in dissents, Justice Thomas must feel lonely on that side of the opinions. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the first called the Great Dissenter for his opposition in the 19th Century to the Court’s abominable opinions denying equal protection to Black Americans. Since then others have been given the title as an expression of respect—Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1st Amendment freedom of speech context, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas in the 60s, and John Paul Stevens for his unique way of viewing the law in contemporary society. But Justice Thomas will never join their ranks. The Great Contrarian perhaps.

The Court in Utah v. Streiff held 5-3 that the attenuation doctrine could limit the exclusionary rule’s application in the context of a police officer who made an unlawful stop but then got lucky when he discovered that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for the detainee. The case made sense since the officer acted in good faith and did nothing to contrive the basis for the stop. As Napoleon said before Waterloo, it’s better to be lucky than good.

Another significant 4th Amendment decision was Birchfield v. North Dakota/Bernard v. Minnesota, in which the Court reviewed state statutes which made it a crime for detained drivers to refuse to submit to a sobriety test. Both breathalyzer and blood tests are considered searches incident to arrest, but is a warrant required? The Court distinguished between the two, finding that the former does not implicate significant 4th Amendment privacy interests but the latter does. So, unless there are exigent circumstances, a warrant is required to obtain a blood sample.

Finally the Court disappointed 2nd Amendment firearms advocates in holding in Voisine v. United States, by a 6-2 vote, that a conviction of domestic violence misdemeanor, even with only a showing of recklessness, could satisfy the federal statute’s prohibition of possession of a firearm.

For those schadenfreudian readers who kept track of the column’s predictions for the term, it is 17 out of 22, about 80%, great for a hockey forward on shoot outs, bad for a goalie.

Not that the summer will be a complete blow-off for the Justices. They, with the help of their law clerks, continue to look over about 100 new petitions for review received every week, along with motions, preparing for fall arguments, etc.

Actually, the Justices travel quite a bit throughout the year, frequently on the dime of outside groups. These trips totaled 365 for all nine of the Justices last year, ranging from about five a year by Chief Justice Roberts to around 25 by Justice Scalia. The trips often involve speeches which, no doubt, help educate the public about the life and function of the Court.

One interesting development this last month was the GAO’s report which gently supported the idea of live video of oral arguments, an issue advocated for some time. Two of the Circuit Courts, as well as dozens of state courts, already have stepped into the 21st Century with this project. The Court, however, is cautious about such changes, and column writers on oral arguments are unlikely to be made redundant in the near future.

This project has renewed my respect for the rigorous job the Justices have as the Supreme law of the land. Not the occupation for slackers or the faint of heart.

Scalia’s Participation in Discussions and Drafts Circulated Undoubtedly Affected the Rationales and Nuances of The Rule of Law

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

The Supreme Court issued four opinions in criminal cases in May, which leaves nine more cases to be decided in June before the end of the 2015-2016 term. The split in the vote for the cases was 8-0, 7-1, 5-3, and 5-3, with the Court siding with the government argument in three of the cases and the defendant in one case. The Court has issued 54 full opinions thus far in the term, 13 of them in criminal cases.

The votes seem to indicate that the absence of Justice Scalia has not, thus far, changed the result of criminal cases although his participation in the discussions and drafts circulated undoubtedly affected the rationales and nuances of the rule of law that resulted from the opinions. The politically charged cases that need a swing vote to give the case a 5-4 majority have ,of late, tended to be more often civil cases. An example since Justice Scalia’s death was Zubik v. Burwell on the issue of contraceptive coverage and First Amendment freedom of religion. In that case a week ago a 4-4 vote let the lower court’s decision stand.

And that, perhaps, has some positives by shifting the responsibility to resolve difficult disputes from a single unelected Justice to elected officials to find a compromise and a solution acceptable to a majority of their constituents. Not that our Congress has of late shown any ability to achieve this result.

Justice Scalia, however, showed no shyness about close votes or his role to stake an opinion on a result and reasoning that he felt was right. In her eulogy in February, Justice Ginsburg said, “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the “applesauce” and “argle bargle”—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh.” So things are not as much fun without him, both in public at oral argument and apparently in chambers.

The column’s predictions of the results of the May cases included one swing-and-a-miss in the Courts’s decision in Betterman v. Montana. The Court unanimously found that the roots of Speedy Trial were limited to delays prior to conviction and did not extend to delays prior to sentence. I had thought that today’s importance of sentencing hearings and the effect of delay on a defendant’s ability to defend himself at the time of sentence could, in effect, expand the constitutional right to one of Speedy Justice. But I was unaware, at the time of the column, that defense counsel would concede at oral argument that they had failed to preserve the issue of whether due process could afford such protection. So that issue remains open for future litigants.

For prosecutors the most important opinion may have been Foster v Dulles, in which the Court found that a death penalty defendant had a right to a Batson hearing on whether the prosecutor had impermissibly made peremptory challenges to prospective jurors based on race. The trial and appeals judges accepted the trial prosecutor’s “neutral explanations,” but notes obtained 30 years after the trial showed otherwise. The case breathes life into the Batson prohibition and will hopefully discourage the practice and make trial judges more skeptical about disingenuous explanations.  The effect of unscrupulous removal of Black jurors is a taint on the perception of justice by members of the African American community. Black jurors matter.

As a practical matter this racist practice gives support for elements who want to eliminate or greatly reduce the number of peremptory challenges given to trial prosecutors. This was the recent recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Rules of the Judicial Conference. In this age of strange people showing up for jury duty, such a change would damage a trial prosecutor’s ability to get an unbiased jury. The other effect of the decision will be to be to make prosecutors more careful about what they leave in their case files.

The two 5-3 cases involved questions of predicate offenses under the Immigration and Naturalization Act (Torres) and whether the person from whom property was taken could be a Hobbs Act conspirator. He can. (Oceano)

There are a bunch of interesting and knotty cases left for next month, including former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s future as a free man.