Category: Courts


Sherrilyn Ifill’s The Chief Strikes Out

Lucky for us, guest blogger and my brilliant colleague Sherrilyn Ifill has written a guest post on Chief Justice Roberts’s defense of the Court’s recusal standards and his dismissal of related concerns with regard to upcoming cases, including the health care challenge.  Here is Professor Ifill’s post entitled “The Chief Strikes Out.”

The Chief Justice of the United States is too polite to tell those of us who’ve raised concerns about Supreme Court ethics and recusal standards to go jump in a lake.  So instead, he invited us to a baseball game.  In his 2011 State of the Judiciary address to Congress, Chief Justice John Roberts invoked the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball scandal to explain why, in his view, the justices of the Supreme Court need not formally adhere to the Code of Judicial Conduct that governs the conduct of every other judge in the country or modify its current recusal practice.  It’s not worth arguing with the Chief about the significance of the Judge Kennesaw Landis‘ role in resolving what was then the worst scandal in sports history.  I have elsewhere taken issue with what I regard as the Chief Justice’s inadequate conception of the role of umpires in his confirmation hearing opening statement.   But as every true sports fans knows, you can’t win a sports argument.

Justice Roberts deserves credit for devoting his entire State of the Judiciary address to responding to the growing swell of critics in Congress, in the academy and in the advocacy community for changes in the Court’s recusal practice [although very persuasive critiques suggest that the Chief might well have spoken in his remarks directly to the crises effect the lower federal court judges] .  Given the fact that one of the biggest problems with the Supreme Court’s ethics and recusal practices is the silence and secrecy that shrouds them, Roberts’ public and detailed defense constitutes a welcome indication that the Court is willing to engage respectfully with its critics. But Roberts’ forthrightness cannot overcome the fundamental inadequacy of his response to the concerns raised about the Court’s ethics and recusal practice.

I found Justice Roberts’ defense of the status quo in the Supreme Court’s recusal practice to be the most unsatisfying aspect of his remarks.  As the Chief notes, Title 28, section 455 (a) of the United States Code requires federal judges to withdraw from cases in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”  Unlike the Code of Judicial Conduct which, by its express terms does not cover Supreme Court justices, 455(a) applies to justice on the High Court which even Justice Roberts concedes when he tells us that “individual Justices decide for themselves whether recusal is warranted under 455.”  The Supreme Court has said that this standard does not require proof of actual bias and is to be judged by an objective standard, not the subjective view of the judge about his own impartiality.  The standard is based on that of the “reasonable person.”  In this regard, even the mere appearance of bias may require withdrawal.  This comports with the Supreme Court’s view even before 455(a) was amended that include an objective standard that  “justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.”

In addressing the recusal question, Justice Roberts rejects outright calls for Justices Thomas and Kagan to recuse themselves from hearing the case involving challenges to the health care law. But concerns about the Court’s recusal practice transcend the particulars of the health care case.  Questions about the Court’s contemporary recusal practice date back to Chief Justice Rehnquist’s decision to participate in the Laird v. Tatum case in 1973, a year after he had testified before Congress in defense of the surveillance practices at issue, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Nixon Administration, and continued through Rehnquist’s decision sit in the 2000 Microsoft case, potential conflicts among several justices in Bush v. Gore , and through the controversy surrounding Justice Scalia’s duck-hunting trip with then-Vice President Dick Cheney while a case against the Vice President was pending in the Court.

The key issues at the center of the controversy are those of transparency and consistency.  How do individual justices apply the standard for recusal set out in 455(a)?  The Court’s recusal practice is entirely opaque.  Justices are not required to, and most often do not, write decisions explaining why they have declined to recuse themselves from cases in which their withdrawal has been requested by parties.  That’s why Justice Scalia’s 22-page memorandum opinion in response to the duck hunting controversy was so extraordinary and welcome, despite the many flaws in Scalia’s reasoning.  We simply have no sense of how the justices apply the reasonable person standard in recusal cases.

In the absence of an opinion, even when the justices do recuse themselves, the parties and the public have little understanding of the basis upon which an individual justice took that action.  It’s easy enough when there is an actual financial connection between a justice and one of the parties, or when the child or close relative of a justice is a lawyer for one of the parties.  But the “appearance” standard set out in 28 U.S.C. 455 does not require actual bias.  As a result we have very little sense of what – to the understanding of members of the Court – actually constitutes the appearance of partiality.  This has the effect of increasing the controversy when, for example, Justice Thomas’ wife engages in high profile political behavior in opposition to the health care law, and Thomas makes comments that appear to approve her recent conduct.  There is endless speculation, but very little Supreme Court precedent to guide a sound discussion of whether in fact recusal is warranted.

Roberts may be right that neither Thomas nor Kagan should recuse themselves.  But this is not a matter the Chief can simply determine based on his confidence in the integrity of his colleagues.  The question of recusal in neither instance is as much of a slam-dunk as Roberts and some ethicists have suggested, and is entitled to careful consideration by each of the justices in accordance with the standards of 455(a).  While it is a comfort that Justice Roberts has “complete confidence in the capability of his colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted” that is simply not the standard set out in 455, or in the Court’s jurisprudence interpreting that statute. And frankly, many Americans simply do not share that confidence.  Moreover, the lawyers who practice in the Court should have the opportunity to rely on more than the assurances of the Chief, in assessing the adherence of individual justices to the legal standard for recusal. Read More


Russian Human Rights Council Recommends Quashing Khodorkovsky’s Conviction

Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev met Tuesday with Mikhail Fedotov, Chairman of Medvedev's Human Rights Council. The Khodorkovsky report was the first topic that Mr. Fedotov raised.

Just before Christmas, Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights recommended that the December 2010 conviction of Yukos-Oil-CEO-now-prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky be annulled.  That announcement (unfortunately, only available in Russian, but reported by the BBC, among others) coincides with massive street protests not seen in Russia since shortly before Christmas 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. 

The Council’s recommendation was based on a 427-page report on Khodorkovsky’s conviction that the Council gave to President Medvedev.  The report contained the analysis of nine scholars that the Council selected last spring from Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.  I was the American contributor.  The report on the Council’s website is in Russian, but you can find an English-version of my portion of the document here

The Khodorkovsky case will be the focus of a “hot topics” panel on Friday morning, January 6, at 10:30 at the AALS Conference in Washington D.C.  How does the case relate to the recent protests in Russia?  What does it say about the rule of law in Russia and prospects for reform?  Come to the panel and find out!


Original Habeas Writ

My brilliant colleague Lee Kovarsky is an expert on the theory and practice of habeas corpus.  He’s a wunderkind.  One can find him, in any given week, arguing habeas petitions before an appellate court, working on the first habeas casebook entitled Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-Conviction Litigation with his co-author Brandon Garrett, and, as I imagine is true this week, grading civil procedure exams.  Professor Kovarsky is also writing ground-breaking articles.  Here is the abstract for his most recent work entitled Original Habeas Redux, published by the Virginia Law Review:

In Original Habeas Redux, I map the modern dimensions of the Supreme Court’s most exotic jurisdiction, the original habeas writ. The Court has not issued such relief since 1925 and, until recently, had not ordered a case transferred pursuant to that authority in over fifty years. In August 2009, by transferring a capital prisoner’s original habeas petition to a federal district court rather than dismissing it outright, In re Davis abruptly thrust this obscure power back into mainstream legal debate over both the death penalty and the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.

Scrambling to understand how the authority has evolved since its nineteenth-century heyday, commentators have been severely limited by the absence of any data reporting the attributes of the original petitions themselves. I have filled that empirical void by collecting and organizing the only modern original habeas data, and this Article presents those results for the first time. The data shows that the vast majority of original petitioners are criminally confined, but that they are not collaterally challenging that confinement in their initial habeas proceedings. Original writ procedure is now primarily a vehicle for litigating “successive” habeas corpus petitions that are otherwise subject to severe jurisdictional limits in the federal courts.

I argue that, in light of the writ’s history and the data I have compiled, Davis is not a blip in an otherwise constant state of original habeas inactivity. I observe that the availability of original habeas relief has historically exhibited two over-arching characteristics: (1) that the Supreme Court’s Article III appellate power to grant it is basically coextensive with Article III judicial power common to all federal courts; and (2) that the Court does not actually exercise that authority when it may avail itself of jurisdictional alternatives. I also present data confirming that the availability of conventional appellate jurisdiction exerts the dominant influence on the modern original habeas docket’s composition. I ultimately advance what I call the “capital safety valve paradigm”–the idea that original habeas should and likely will emerge as a means to ensure that the death penalty is not erroneously imposed.


Ira Glass v. Amanda Williams: Knockout Punch

In the event you read this prior post and missed the coverage in the news today, Judge Amanda Williams has agreed to resign from the bench in January and has also promised not to seek another judgeship.  In exchange the Georgia Judicial Qualification Commission dropped the complaints of misconduct against the Judge, who presided over the state’s largest drug court.  On one level, this result is unsurprising because resignation is the usual result when complaints are brought by the Commission.  The resignation, however, is a dramatic fall from grace for a judge who recently won re-election to a sixth term.



“The Legal Elephant Parade That Is the Ninth Circuit”

In an editorial published yesterday, the Wall Street Journal casually referenced “the legal elephant parade that is the Ninth Circuit.”

Though the Journal gets points for originality, the wittiest critique of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that I’ve heard remains a comment attributed to a district-court judge within the circuit.  This judge reported thusly on the status of a decision that had been appealed from his court to the judges above: “I’ve just been affirmed by the Ninth Circuit, but I still think I’m right.”

Interestingly, the quote immediately above seems to have originated with (or at least, been popularized by) Stanley Weigel, a rather liberal, now-deceased Kennedy appointee. More likely than not, to the extent that this comment provides some insight into the thoughts of its speaker, Weigel was lamenting the tendencies of the relatively conservative Ninth Circuit panels of a bygone era.


Barry Bonds: The Likely Sentence

Yesterday, federal prosecutors asked that Barry Bonds be sentenced to 15 months in prison, following his conviction on one charge of obstruction of justice (18 U.S.C. § 1503). A probation officer has recommended that Bonds receive only probation, and Bonds himself (understandably) agrees with the officer’s assessment.  How realistic are these respective sentencing requests?

We’ll start with the relevant Sentencing Guideline for obstruction of justice (USSG § 2J1.2), which recommends a sentence of 15-21 months for a first offender, such as Bonds.  These Guidelines are only advisory (though extremely important), of course; ultimately, the governing text is 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), which enumerates the factors to be considered in the formulation of a criminal sentence.

I won’t go through those factors here. Instead, I’ll relate what other defendants, arguably similarly situated to Bonds, have received in recent cases. Here, I sifted through data collected by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts for FY 2003 – FY 2007, which I compiled into a single database for another project a while back. (For full citations of these datasets, please go to footnote 119 here.)

The AOUSC data capture any and all criminal cases that terminated in federal district court between October 2002 and September 2007, providing a wealth of information regarding each matter. I separated out from this mass of data the handful of cases that entailed a single conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1503, without any convictions for other offenses. The data do not relate whether the defendant in each of these cases was sentenced as a first offender, or not; nor do they indicate whether any departures or enhancements applied in a particular case. But they do reveal the sentence that was imposed in each matter.

What I found was that 30 of the 83 defendants whose cases terminated within this time frame and who were arguably similarly situated to Bonds, in that they were convicted upon plea or guilty verdict at trial of a single count under 18 U.S.C. § 1503, received only probation (and, in some cases, a fine) as their sentences. The remaining defendants received prison time, with the median term being 24 months (again, some of these defendants were almost assuredly not first offenders, accounting for the longer sentences). The prison sentences were quite spread out, such that they did not form a bell curve; no more than five defendants received any specific term. Of these, five defendants received five-month terms, five received 12-month terms, and another five received 18-months terms.

So, if these numbers are any guide (which, I concede, they may not be), it looks like Bonds has a pretty good argument for probation.


Goodwin Liu’s First Three Months on the California Supreme Court

Goodwin Liu now has been an associate justice of the California Supreme Court for just over three months. And while he has not yet written a majority, dissenting, or concurring opinion, the (very) early returns suggest that the comparisons between Justice Liu and former Chief Justice Rose Bird that circulated at the time of his nomination to the court may have been a tad overstated.

Bird’s tenure as chief justice ended in no small part because of her perceived absolutist stance on the death penalty. Just yesterday, the California Supreme Court reversed two capital convictions, finding that the trial court had improperly discharged a juror. Was this the work of Justice Liu, reviving the spirit of the Bird court? Well, no. The unanimous opinion was authored by Justice Carol Corrigan, a Schwarzenegger appointee.

Meanwhile, just last month the court unanimously affirmed judgments of death in two separate cases. Though neither matter raised particularly complex issues, Justice Liu’s votes in these cases belie suggestions that, if placed in a position to review capital cases, he would “overrule death penalty convictions given any excuse, no matter how far-fetched.”


AALS “Hot Topics” Program: Russia’s “Dictatorship of Law”

I am glad to announce that the AALS Committee on Special Programs selected my proposal as a “Hot Topics” panel for the 2012 AALS Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. next month.  The program is called: “The Dictatorship of Law: The Khodorkovsky Case, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law in Russia.”  William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, will chair a panel that includes Kim Lane Scheppele (the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton), Bruce Bean (Michigan State University), Christopher Bruner (Washington and Lee University), Alexei Trochev (Nazarbayev University) and me.  The program will begin at 10:30 on Friday morning, January 6. 

Below is a description of the panel, which will occur (as perhaps a “hot topic” should) between two central events on the Russian calendar: the surprising results of yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Russia and presidential elections scheduled for March 4 that (at least until yesterday) everyone was saying would be certain to return now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the presidency currently held by his protégé, Dmitrii Medvedev.

During his first campaign for President of Russia in February 2000, Vladimir Putin defined democracy as a “dictatorship of law.”  This was meant to signal a shift away from the perceived lawlessness of his immediate predecessor’s governance, and to feed the nostalgia for Soviet-era stability.  As Putin starts his gambit to return to the Russian presidency, this panel examines which half of that slogan will dominate the other.  Recent developments in the most well-known case in the courts of both Russia and the Council of Europe present an opportunity to do so at a pivotal moment not only in that case but for the future of the rule of law in Russia.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the CEO of the Yukos Oil Company and the richest man in Russia when in 2003 he and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, were arrested and charged with crimes connected to Yukos, Russia’s most profitable and well-known private corporation.  They were convicted of fraud, causing property damage by deceit or breach of trust, and tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in prison.  Yukos was seized and sold to state-controlled companies.  In December 2010, as their sentences drew to a close, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted by another court of embezzlement and money-laundering, charges arising out of the same time period and concerning the same corporate activities that were the basis for the first conviction.  On the eve of that verdict, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin informed a nationwide television audience that “a thief should sit in jail,” a reference to a well-known Soviet mini-series that would have been quite familiar to viewers (the quote continues: “… and people don’t care how I put him away.”).  In midsummer 2011, a Russian court upheld the verdict, extending the defendants’ sentences until 2016. 

A bit more on the tension this case embodies for Russian law and human rights after the break …

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Ira Glass v. Amanda Williams

If you missed the story Very Tough Love when it aired last March on This American Life, it put a new spin on that old adage about local politics mattering most.  When you are a drug court defendant, the judicial philosophy and temperament of the judge who manages your case matters a lot, particularly since entering the drug court means waiving many procedural rights.  The story, which focused on a drug court judge who had recently won reelection to a sixth term, was remarkable for its laser focus on judicial discretion and how much can go awry when that discretion is abused.  It was also impossible to listen to the story without speculating about how furious the judge must have been when she heard it.

Furious enough, it turns out, to threaten to sue This American Life and reporter Ira Glass for libel.  She sent her letter,  Glass responded, and for a while all seemed to be quiet.

This past week, however, Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Committee filed a formal complaint against the judge—Amanda Williams, who presides over the drug court in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.   Among other allegations, the complaint states that Judge Williams jailed defendants indefinitely, ordered a suicidal defendant into solitary confinement for more than two months, and ordered a defendant jailed when he disputed the results of a drug test.

Judge Williams has the opportunity to respond to the charges in writing.  Unless she and the Committee settle (which usually results in a judge stepping aside), the Commiittee will hold a trial-like proceeding on the charges.

We’ll see what happens next.  But if you haven’t been following this, it’s worth clicking on the links to get up to speed.  Reality radio is way more interesting than reality television.


Photo Credit:  Krista Johansen





Depublishing Opinions

My participation at a conference last week got me interested in the power of the California and Arizona Supreme Courts to depublish lower court opinions while letting the judgment stand.  This is obviously a docket management technique, but I wonder about why it is justified.

Let’s start with the observation that courts often affirm a result without affirming the reasoning that led to that result.  When they do that, though, they write an opinion turning that new reasoning into law.  Federal courts can also wipe out a published district court opinion by reversing it with a summary order.  (The U.S. Supreme Court cannot do this.)  Affirming a result and wiping out a published opinion without a new one, though, is peculiar. The problem is that the losing litigant is not told why he or she lost and nobody can figure that out in a subsequent case.  If there is other published authority on that issue, then you could say that the ones that remain are the law, but if the issue is one of first impression then no guidance is provided.

I’d be curious to hear from folks in these states about what they think about this practice.