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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Civil Side of the Siegelman Saga

Coverage of the Don Siegelman case has focused almost exclusively on criminal issues. But it seems to me that major civil litigation could eventually be a byproduct of the criminal case.

And I think the same thing could be said of the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, which has produced three political prisoners--attorney Paul Minor and former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield.

If it is proven that the Bush Justice Department prosecuted the Siegelman and Minor cases for political and unlawful reasons, what kind of lawsuits might that generate?

Let's consider the Siegelman case first. The former Alabama governor has spent nine months in federal prison. He recently said on national television that he is "busted" financially and any hopes he had of pursuing future political opportunities are ruined. His legal bills probably run into the hundreds of thousands. And one can only imagine the stress that he and his family have endured because of the Bush DOJ prosecution.

The defendants in the Minor case have been through similar ordeals. They were sentenced in September 2007, and Minor went almost immediately to federal prison. Wes Teel and John Whitfield reported to federal prison in late December. Minor has been fined $4.25 million, 15 times the district court guidelines for such a case. All three men have had to deal with personal and/or family health crises while imprisoned.

What if it is shown that both of these prosecutions were fraudulent, that none of the defendants actually committed federal crimes and Justice Department officials knew it from the outset?What if it is shown that these men were prosecuted and convicted not because they committed crimes but because they were active Democrats at a time when Republicans controlled the U.S. Justice Department?

What kind of lawsuits might result from such findings? How many millions of dollars might juries award the defendants for their extreme suffering? Can you put enough zeroes on the end of a check to sufficiently compensate these victims?

And here's the big question: Who might be held liable for damages in such lawsuits? I, of course, am not a lawyer, and I'm certainly not an expert on the kind of complex civil litigation we are talking about here. But here are a few thoughts, based on my own experiences and research regarding civil law:

* In general, judges and prosecutors are immune from lawsuits as long as they act within their official capacity. But what if it is shown that judges and prosecutors knew from the outset these cases were bogus? Judicial and prosecutorial immunity is not absolute. Could facts surface that would cause serious problems for folks like Mark Fuller, Leura Canary, and Louis Franklin in Alabama and Henry Wingate and Dunn Lampton in Mississippi?

* What about Karl Rove, who might have played a key role in both cases? I don't see how Rove would be protected by immunity. I'm sure Rove has some kind of umbrella or personal liability insurance policy. If I were Turd Blossom, I would be checking on my policy limits. And if I were Turd Blossom's insurer, I would be more than a little concerned about a major payout that could be looming. Could Don Siegelman wind up with rights to a nice chunk of property at Rosemary Beach?

* What about Bill Canary, Rob Riley, and other GOP operatives who might have played a role in initiating the Siegelman prosecution? Again, I see no way they can hide behind claims of immunity. And if I were them, I would be checking the policy limits on my umbrella policies.

* What about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pumped millions of dollars into Mississippi and Alabama in an effort to get "pro business" judges in place? What about COC leaders such as Thomas J. Donahue, who apparently led this effort to essentially buy our courts? Forgive my editorializing, but I think it would be poetic justice if the COC and Donahue both wound up bankrupt and destitute in the aftermath of lawsuits. They have intentionally corrupted our justice system, at both the federal and state levels, and no punishment for them is too severe, in my view.

* What about George W. Bush and other members of the administration (can we say Alberto Gonzalez?) who might have been involved? Paula Jones has proven that sitting presidents are not immune from lawsuits, so I see no reason why lawyers representing Siegelman and Minor should not go after Bush & Co.--and the sooner the better.

* What if it is shown that members of the press were actively engaged in a conspiracy to bring a bogus case against Siegelman? Could Eddie Curran of the Mobile Press-Register have bigger worries than his floundering book deal? What about folks like publisher Victor Hanson III and Editor Tom Scarritt at The Birmingham News? Could journalists be hit hard in the pocketbook? Normally, I wouldn't think so. But I'm not sure that anything about this case has been normal.

Here's another big question to ponder: What about the timing of any lawsuits by the Siegelman and Minor defendants? Should they wait until the criminal appeals are exhausted? Or could they go ahead now, starting the discovery process that could include sworn depositions for folks like Rove, Canary, Rob Riley, Lampton, even Dubya. (I seem to recall that Bill Clinton was forced to give a deposition while serving in the White House. Turnabout is fair play, isn't it?)

Again, I'm not a lawyer--and I welcome input from anyone who knows about issues connected to this kind of civil litigation--but I see no reason why, technically, the Siegelman and Minor defendants could not move forward with lawsuits right now.

From a practical standpoint, the biggest holdup might be money. The defendants already are paying huge sums of money for their criminal defenses? Where would they find the funds to launch civil cases, which could be very expensive? Does the Democratic Party, or other progressive interests, have the human and financial resources to help justice be done on the civil side?

(To be continued)

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