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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Paul Minor Ruling: More Evidence of Our Crumbling Justice System

Americans seem to be preoccupied these days with possible health-care reform, and that unquestionably is an important issue. But has anyone noticed that our justice system is crumbling around us?

Want evidence? Consider the recent ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Paul Minor case out of Mississippi.

The court correctly overturned the bribery convictions against the three defendants--even though it used some judicial sleight of hand in doing so. But it upheld all other convictions--for honest-services mail fraud, mail and wire fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy--and ordered a resentencing.

Not only was the court blatantly wrong in upholding any of the convictions, it did not even bother to explain itself. Why? Because there is no law, or facts, to support any of the convictions. But the Fifth Circuit, in an apparent effort to provide cover for corrupt trial judge Henry Wingate, upheld the convictions anyway--without making a legitimate effort to explain itself on any of the alleged crimes.

The opinion, authored by Reagan appointee William Lockhart Garwood, is laughably bad. (See opinion at the end of this post.) Paul Minor, once a highly successful trial lawyer on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and codefendants Wes Teel and John Whitfield (former state judges) might go free if the U.S. Supreme Court declares the current honest-services fraud law unconstitutional. But the Fifth Circuit certainly did not do Minor & Co. any favors. Even worse, the appellate judges cheated a public that pays them to do their jobs.

One of the reasons we have appellate courts is so they can review lower-court findings, determine if they were correct based on the facts and the law, and explain their findings to set precedents for future cases. The Fifth Circuit does none of that in the Minor case.

Why did the Fifth Circuit determine that the trial court was correct in finding the defendants guilty of honest-services mail fraud? We don't know; the Fifth Circuit ruling doesn't say.

Why were the convictions for mail and wire fraud correct? The Fifth Circuit doesn't say.

Why was the racketeering convictions under the federal RICO law correct? The Fifth Circuit doesn't say.

How can the conspiracy convictions stand? The Fifth Circuit doesn't say.

The fundamental job of an appellate court is to decide issues before it--and to explain them. The Fifth Circuit, on the Minor ruling, fails across the board.

Heck, the Fifth Circuit even acted in a goofy fashion when it overturned the bribery convictions. Those convictions should have been overturned on multiple grounds--most importantly, that Judge Wingate gave unlawful jury instructions on those counts.

But the Fifth Circuit doesn't want to go there. So it found that Teel and Whitfield were not agents of the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), meaning the federal-funds bribery law did not apply in the case.

And get this: The defendants did not even bring up that issue on appeal. The appellate court came up with that on its own--probably so it would not have to explain how badly Wingate butchered the bribery charges.

Here is what should have happened, under the law, on the Minor appeal:

* All convictions against the three defendants should have been overturned;

* All three defendants should have been set free ASAP;

* The appellate court should have explained in detail how Judge Henry Wingate corruptly handled the case--and how former U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton brought a bribery case against individuals where the federal law did not even apply.

If this had been done, the public--if it was paying the least bit of attention--might have become outraged and demanded an investigation--that should have concluded with impeachment and/or imprisonment for Wingate and Lampton. Instead, the Fifth Circuit justices are covering for their federal buddies--and Minor, Teel, and Whitfield still face the possibility of years in prison.

We are talking here about three men who are unquestionably not guilty. Even the Fifth Circuit, in all of its lunacy, admitted they were not guilty and never should have been been tried on the most important charge--bribery.

If the Don Siegelman case does not convince you that our federal courts are a shameful mess, the Paul Minor case certainly should.

Health-care reform is important, but people's lives are being ruined by a hopelessly broken justice system.

Will Americans ever notice? Will they ever rise up to do anything about it?


Barry Schwartz said...

Well, you might have noticed that they are rising up against universal health coverage. I even got an e-mail today from Howard Dean's brother asking me to contact Harry Reid to demand that poor people be allowed to remain uninsured. I think maybe people are too busy preventing the erection and repair of social infrastructure to rise up against the decay of social infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the fact that the Fifth Circuit issued a 35 page opinion suggest that they did explain their reasoning? From reading the opinion, it sounds like they addressed everything that the appellants' lawyers argued on appeal. Are you sure that the lawyers raised the points you discussed? It would be odd indeed for the court to have explained its reasoning on every single point except the rather large points you raise. Do you have the briefs that were filed?

And if not - and if the lawyers who were intimately involved in the case did not think that they could raise the arguments you put forth - is it possible that you are not viewing this case correctly?

legalschnauzer said...


You would think a 35-page opinion would cover all of the key issues in the case. But if you read the whole thing, and I have, it does not.

I also have read the appellant's briefs, and they challenge each conviction--based on the facts and the law.

But the Fifth Circuit does not explain why it upheld all of the convictions except the bribery.

Essentially, the court says, "They are guilty on those counts because we say so."

It's mind blowing stuff. The general public has no idea that this is how our courts actually operate.

I think I understand your point, but do you seriously think competent lawyers on a criminal appeal would not raise each issue in their briefs? Paul Minor can afford pretty darned good lawyers, and they covered the bases.

The court simply did not do its job and wrote a fairly lengthy opinion probably just to cover up that fact.

Anonymous, Too said...

Excellent reportage, LS. Keep up the good work! My brother is a long-time judge, so I know something about which you document.

As you have been blogging for some time now, it's all about politics, not justice. This is nothing new--it's the way the game has been played for millenia.

If Minor has the money, he will have to take it to the Supremes, and, even there, he might not see any justice.