Friday, January 22, 2010

Federal Judge May Face Impeachment

Yesterday a task force of the House of Representatives voted in favor of four articles of impeachment against Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., Eastern District of Louisiana. The articles allege an improper financial relationship with a firm that handled a case before him, the failure to recuse himself in a case the firm handled, and more. Judge, Facing Impeachment, Mounts His Defense, The BLT: The Blog of the Legal Times, Jan. 22, 2010.

The judge's lawyer argues that some of the alleged misconduct was when Porteous was on the state bench and that, in any event, the Department of Justice investigated similar charges and declined to prosecute. But the Legal Times posted the DOJ's letter to the Fifth Circuit's Chief Judge and it does not paint a pretty picture:

Despite the Department's decision not to charge Judge Porteous with violations of federal criminal law, the investigation has uncovered evidence of pervasive misconduct committed by Judge Porteous. The Department also is aware that Judge Porteous and his medical examiners have concluded that he is mentally and psychologically unfit to serve as a federal judge, and that his incompetency is permanent. Collectively, the evidence indicates that Judge Porteous may have violated federal and state criminal laws, controlling canons of judicial conduct, [and] rules of professional responsibility, and conducted himself in a manner antithetical to the constitutional standard of good behavior required of all federal judges.

Impeaching a federal judge is very unusual. The Federal Judicial Center has a list of all the judicial impeachments from 1803 to 2009 -- just 14 in all. Only 7 of the judges were convicted.

The Federal Judicial Center offers a database that enables you to search profiles of all federal judges in history by characteristics such as nominating president, race or ethnicity, and -- a search I just tried -- termination reason.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fourth Amendment and Cloud Computing

Fourth amendment doctrine developed in tangible contexts -- do you have an expectation of privacy inside your house? with respect to stuff you zip in a dufflebag? And in the last century, it has had to deal with more technology -- wiretaps, heat sensors, and so on. \

A new law review article explores privacy interests in material in "cloud computing" -- your diary stored in Google docs, your snapshots stored on Flickr, etc. David A. Couillard, Note, Defogging the Cloud: Applying Fourth Amendment Principles to Evolving Privacy Expectations in Cloud Computing, 93 Minn. L. Rev. 2205 (2009).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town

On one morning, members of a drug task force arrested forty-seven people for dealing cocaine. Forty-seven is a lot of drug dealers for a town of 5,000 people, and some people might have been struck by the coincidence that not one of them had cocaine when the surprise busts were made. But still, prosecutions went ahead and most of the suspects were convicted and given substantial sentences.

In Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town (HV8079.N3 B55 2005 at Good Reads) reporter Nate Blakeslee explores all the things that went wrong -- the dishonest undercover cop, the sheriff who ignored repeated warning signs (even an indictment of the cop for theft from another county), the prosecutor who pressed on and stonewalled anything negative, the court-appointed counsel who didn't do much, the judge who didn't let the defense attorneys question the cop's background, the newspaper who assumed the guilt of all charged, the white community that was eager to believe the worst of the black defendants.

He also explores some things that went right -- a few community members (white and black) who advocated for the defendants, sending out mailings to get some media attention, the Texas Observer story (written by Blakeslee), the national media coverage, the New York drug reform advocate, attorneys from Texas, DC, and New York who handled the habeas case and civil suits.

Blakeslee followed the events in Tulia after his first magazine article. He attended court hearings, interviewed defendants and family members, and pored over trial transcripts. He brings to this legal tale background about the community and the families entangled in the arrests.

Blakeslee gives an inside view of the legal maneuverings -- the judge's decisions to exclude certain evidence from the original trials, the different level of investigation by the different court-appointed attorneys, the involvement of the Texas ACLU (search for "tulia" to learn about advocacy related to the case), the litigation strategy of the habeas team, and some beautiful cross-examination in the habeas hearing. The habeas team was spearheaded by Vanita Gupta, a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, fresh out of law school and funded by a Soros fellowship. She threw herself into the case and recruited the "dream team" of lawyers from DC and New York law firms.* Blakeslee had access to the team and so could write with immediacy of the "war room" discussions and the teamwork involved in the litigation. Behind one lawyer's brilliant cross-examination, for instance, was another lawyer's painstaking work culling through transcripts to find the undercover officer's previous misstatements.

Blakeslee makes it clear that he does not think that the injustice in Tulia is unique to that time and place, and he discusses more general issues about multi-jurisdictional drug task forces and the indigent defense system. In a closing chapter, he reports some reforms implemented in Texas in response to the Tulia events.

You can preview Tulia on Google Books, and of course you can check the whole book out from the library.

* For profiles of and interviews with Gupta see New York Times (April 16, 2003), NYU Law (Jan. 2004)), Rediff India Abroad (Dec. 8, 2004), and Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

For Judges on Facebook, Friendship Has Limits

For Judges on Facebook, Friendship Has Limits, N.Y. Times, Dec. 10, 2009.

Judges and lawyers in Florida can no longer be Facebook friends.

In a recent opinion, the state’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee decided it was time to set limits on judicial behavior online. When judges “friend” lawyers who may appear before them, the committee said, it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, since it “reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”

. . . A minority of the panel would have allowed Facebook friendship, which it characterized as more like “a contact or acquaintance” without conveying the notion of “feelings of affection or personal regard.”

Admissibility of Past Acts of Sexual Abuse

RCW 10.58.090, added in 2008, allows trial courts to admit evidence of prior sexual misconduct in sex offense cases, even if it would be excluded under ER 404(b). The evidence must still be admissible under ER 403.

Last month, Division I upheld the statute's constitutionality over a variety of objections by a man convicted of molesting his granddaughter after a trial that included the testimony of several other relatives he had molested when they were girls. State v. Scherner, No. 62507-1-I, Findlaw (Dec. 21, 2009).

The court cited (n. 12) a comment by a current UW student: Blythe Chandler, Comment, Balancing Interests Under Washington's Statute Governing the Admissibility of Extraneous Sex-Offense Evidence, 84 Wash. L. Rev. 259 (2009) (abstract). See UW Law news release.

The bulk of the opinion discusses the constitutional challenges to the statute. An unpublished part, at the end, deals with a few other claims, including whether the jury was tainted by seeing a Seattle Times article, Rape trial lets family share decades of pain, secrets, Seattle Times, Aug. 19, 2008 (four jurors saw the headline and picture; none said they read it).

Other coverage of this case in the Seattle Times:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

4 U.K. Men Face Precedent-Setting Non-Jury Trial

4 U.K. Men Face Precedent-Setting Non-Jury Trial, NPR, Jan. 12, 2010.

For the past 400 years, all criminal trials in Britain have taken place in front of a jury. But Tuesday, that precedent was broken as a trial began before only a judge for four men accused of a major robbery at Heathrow Airport. Recent legislation allows non-jury trials in exceptional circumstances. And in this case, the police convinced a higher court that there had been attempts to intimidate or bribe potential jurors.
The crime was exceptional: In February 2004, masked gunmen held up a warehouse at Heathrow Airport and got away with $3 million. Since then over $30 million has been spent trying to try the suspects; the third trial ended after the judge found "a serious attempt at jury tampering."

Thanks: Nick Marritz.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

US Atty Guidelines for Discovery

The Attorney General has new issued guidance memorandums to U.S. Attorneys on criminal discovery. Memos to United States Attorneys: Establishing Guidance for Prosecutors Regarding Criminal Discovery, The Justice Blog, Jan. 4, 2010. This post is on the DOJ's own blog and links to the three memos.
One of the guidance memos explains:

There are times when providing discovery broader than that required even by current Department policy serves the interests of justice. Providing broad and early discovery often promotes the truth-seeking mission of the Department and fosters a speedy resolution of a case. On the other hand, there are times when countervailing considerations counsel against broad and early disclosure. For these reasons, the discovery guidance is intended to assure that prosecutors make considered decisions about whether to disclose information beyond the requirements of law and policy and when to disclose it.

DOJ Report: Better Security for Prosecutors and Judges

The Blog of the Legal Times reports that a Justice Department report "found continued deficiencies in the protection of federal judges and prosecutors even as threats and the like targeting the judiciary and law enforcement increased substantially in recent years." DOJ: Better Effort Needed to Protect Judges, Prosecutors, BLT, Jan. 4, 2010.

The 109-page report is Review of the Protection of the Judiciary and the United States Attorneys (Redacted Version), Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2010-002-R, December 2009.