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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Schnauzer to the Rescue

Scott Horton, of Harper's, and Adam Cohen, of The New York Times, hardly need defending from our humble blog. But the schnauzer is a loyal sort, quick to defend a member of the pack from attack.

You could say that Horton and Cohen are members of the pack because, like me, they have written about the highly questionable prosecution of attorney Paul Minor and ex judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield in Mississippi.

I recently discovered that Horton and Cohen had come under fire from a couple of bloggers, apparently conservative types, who seem to know very little about the Minor case. The bloggers, Walter Olson at PointofLaw.com and John O'Brien at LegalNewsline.com, seem more interested in spreading a pro-corporate ideology than they are in reporting on issues raised by the Minor prosecution.

Olson is based out of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative "think tank," so that appears to color his approach to the Mississippi story. Olson's thesis seems to be: Paul Minor was a trial lawyer, who successfully sued tobacco and asbestos companies, so it's OK if he is wrongfully imprisoned. (And it's OK if two "pro-plaintiff" judges are about to go to prison for crimes they did not commit.)

Olson claims that Cohen says, "Everyone in the justice system down there [in Mississippi] does similarly 'questionable' things, so a 'prosecutor' can haul any lawyer and judge he doesn't like before a grand jury and charge corruption." That's not what Cohen says at all. Cohen says that Mississippi's loose campaign-finance laws allow lawyers (and corporations) to contribute heavily to judges they appear before. "That is terrible for justice," Cohen writes, "since the courts are teeming with perfectly legal conflicts of interest."

And that's the crux of the Minor case: His financial contributions to judges who heard his cases "seem" wrong. But under Mississippi law, they are not. And they only become a federal issue if the judges make unlawful rulings in Minor's favor. And they did not. Therefore, there was no bribery, no honest-services mail fraud, no conspiracy, no racketeering. But three innocent men were convicted anyway.

Olson does say that Horton's pieces on the Minor case are based on slim evidence. Never mind that Horton's work is heavily footnoted, with references to numerous published sources, including Legal Schnauzer.

As for O'Brien, it's not hard to tell where he's coming from. The headline on his piece is "Sympathy for the Devil." I assume the devil, in this case, is Paul Minor. Very subtle.

O'Brien seems to mostly be riding on Olson's shaky coattails. There's little, if any, evidence that O'Brien has done his homework on the case.

In fact, neither post mentions either of the two Republican appointees at the heart of the Minor case--Judge Henry Wingate and prosecutor Dunn Lampton. The public record is clear that Lampton had raging conflicts in the case, and Wingate repeatedly ruled contrary to law.

And both had motive to act improperly. Lampton was on the Bush White House list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. And Wingate was up for a seat on the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. A successful prosecution of a trial lawyer and pro-plaintiff judges stood to save Lampton's job and earn Wingate a promotion.

Of course, it would have taken a little effort to discover this information--effort Olson and O'Brien evidently were not willing to make.

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