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Monday, September 27, 2010

USA Today Investigation Scratches the Surface of Decay in U.S. Justice System

Eric Holder
USA Today has launched a series of investigative reports that show prosecutorial misconduct is a serious problem in the U.S. Justice Department. Last week's first installment indicates the series will be a stellar piece of journalism, one that Harper's Scott Horton says should put the newspaper in Pulitzer territory.

The report, however, only begins to uncover the misconduct that is rampant in America's justice system. For example, USA Today will focus only on federal prosecutors. But what about federal judges? Anyone who has followed the Don Siegelman case in Alabama and the Paul Minor case in Mississippi knows unethical judges are a significant problem. What about state courts, which is where our personal legal nightmare began? And what about appellate courts at both the federal and state levels? We have shown at Legal Schnauzer that appellate judges can be every bit as corrupt as their trial-court brethren. (See herehere, and here.)

In fact, we recently have discovered three examples of unlawful rulings by federal judges here in Alabama. One involves a lawsuit Mrs. Schnauzer and I filed against unethical debt collectors, and the trial judge made unlawful rulings on at least 10 different issues. How does a judge screw things up that badly? Is he even trying to dispense justice?

Two other cases involve RICO lawsuits against judges and lawyers who allegedly have conspired to fix domestic-relations cases in Jefferson County, Alabama. In both divorce-related cases, the rulings are so blatantly unlawful that they can only be explained, in our view, by incompetence, corruption--or both. We will be reporting extensively on all three cases.

Our research will show, we think, that these federal judges are intentionally cheating litigants in order to protect certain members of the legal and business communities. That's not how our justice system is supposed to work. But all to often, that is exactly how it does work in the real world.

We certainly applaud USA Today's efforts to expose problems with federal prosecutors. But readers should know that is only one component of a justice system that is rotting right under our noses.

How bad is the situation with federal prosecutors? Reporters Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy write:

Federal prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not merely score convictions. But a USA TODAY investigation found that prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.

Judges have warned for decades that misconduct by prosecutors threatens the Constitution's promise of a fair trial. Congress in 1997 enacted a law aimed at ending such abuses.

Yet USA TODAY documented 201 criminal cases in the years that followed in which judges determined that Justice Department prosecutors — the nation's most elite and powerful law enforcement officials — themselves violated laws or ethics rules.

What form does the abuse take? USA Today reports:

In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.

Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation's federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct. And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably.

What's wrong with the system? Bennett Gershman, law professor at Pace University, sums it up: "There is no accountability." A federal public defender in New York says USA Today's findings are "the tip of the iceberg."

What was the Obama administration's response? Attorney General Eric Holder refused to be interviewed for the story. The White House apparently thinks mouthing platitudes will solve the problem. Reports USA Today:

Attorney General Eric Holder declined to be interviewed; earlier this year, he told judges that officials "must take seriously each and every lapse, no matter the cause." The head of the department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, said, "Obviously, even one example of real misconduct is too many. . . . If you've engaged in misconduct, the response of the department has to be swift and strong."

How have Holder and Breuer reacted to obvious misconduct during the George W. Bush years. By "looking forward, not backwards" and doing absolutely nothing about it.

At least one person--former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh--gets it. He says: “No civilized society should countenance such conduct or systems that failed to prevent it.”

The Obama administration, however, has tolerated it. And that, Scott Horton writes, is to the president's eternal shame. Events in Alabama are at the heart of Horton's critique:

What does Thornburgh mean by “systems that failed?” The focus of his ire is plainly a culture within the Justice Department that promotes abuse and fails to deal with abuse when it is publicly exposed. Despite his promises to clean the situation up, Eric Holder has done nothing other than arrange some ethics training courses. The Department steadily resists disciplinary action against prosecutors who misbehave and attempts to block public exposure of their misconduct through congressional probes with claims of prosecutorial immunity. Holder refuses even to take questions on the subject at public events (as occurred just [last] week at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird in Alabama). The U.S. attorney who is perhaps the worst single Bush-era offender remains in her position as Republican senators block efforts to appoint a replacement, and the Justice Department continues to stonewall an investigation into some of the most serious cases of abuse.


MaxShelby said...

Roger I am with you on almost all your issues, but this Siegleman issue is the one place where we part.

He did the same thing Riley did with no bid computer contracts in 2001:
Siegleman No bid contracts

Siegleman made a conscious choice to get in bed with so many corrupt bad actors and that got him in big trouble that brought the hammer down on him--deserved IMHO.

He did it to himself and as you know Eddie Curran wrote a book on a lot of this (The Governor of Goat Hill) claiming the Rove connection was a huge hoax. Mr. Curran goes on to say that he knows Siegleman and likes him, but...

I don't have any sympathy for Siegleman despite my progressive leanings--corruption is corruption and any public figure who decides to go that route should be soundly thrashed.

But isn't this the deeper problem in Alabama politics that you have spoken of and the lack of any discernible line between R and D's? If they stick around long enough the mainly republican based corruption machine will get them in the end.

Leftover Bush era judges sure as heck don't help as you have also pointed out quite well.

Neither party seems able to resist "the machine" here in Alabama and we, the citizens, are the real losers in this unfortunately.

My kingdom for a true progressive who has the cajones to stick to their guns and our platforms.

legalschnauzer said...


I hear you. But Siegelman was not convicted based on actions related to no-bid computer contracts. He was not even charged with such matters. Those actions might be smelly in your view, but even federal prosecutors did not treat them as a crime. The key is that Siegelman was convicted for a specific act--taking a donation to a campaign lottery fund and then appointing the donor (Richard Scrushy) to a board to which he already had served under three governors. That simply does not meet any definition of bribery, and it is not a crime. To make matters worse, the judge gave unlawful jury instructions, and the jury itself obviously was tainted. I've heard a number of folks say, in essence, "Well, maybe the Siegelman-Scrushy deal was OK, but he did other stuff that was wrong, so it's fine with me that he got convicted." Well, that's not how our justice system works. You are prosecuted based on specific criminal charges, not on some unrelated matters that might smell funny. Siegelman and Scrushy clearly did not commit the alleged criminal acts they were charged with. And anything involving no-bid computer contracts was so weak that even the Bush-era prosecutors didn't bother with it.

One other point: I would caution anyone against basing their opinions on anything Eddie Curran writes or says.

Anonymous said...

One other point: I would caution anyone against basing their opinions on anything Eddie Curran writes or says.
One other point: I would caution anyone against basing their opinions on anything Roger Shuler writes or says. It's all BS Roger only tells half the story- what he wants you to hear.

Anonymous said...

Have you been involved in any lawsuits where the judge did not make unlawful rulings against you? You must have the worst luck in the world to draw all of these corrupt judges.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon No. 1:

Why don't you give us some specifics. You say, "It's all BS." I assume that means material I present is false. Why don't you give us a few examples of information I've presented that is false? You say, "Roger only tells half of the story, what he wants you to hear." Tell us the other half. I'd love to hear it.

By the way, your comment is nonsensical on its face. First you say, "It's ALL BS." Then you say, I only "tell HALF the story."

That implies that at least half the story is correct, in your eyes. So it can't ALL be BS.

You have some pretty serious logic problems.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon No. 2

I'll make you a deal. You tell me, and my readers, who you are. Then you tell me which of my legal matters you want to discuss in a public place. I will bring all of the documents I have in my possession on that particular legal case, and we will hold a public discussion about it, with anyone who is interested invited to come and listen.

Since you apparently are a lawyer, you must have access to a large conference room somewhere. I will come on your turf, and you can even invite your law partners--if you have any. Maybe we can rent the Alabama Theatre--at your expense, since you brought it up. Let's see you put your money where your mouth is.

We can essentially debate all the key decisions made in the case, and you can attempt to show me the ones that are correct under the facts and the law. I will have the opportunity to show you why they are not correct. Heck, we could even sell tickets, with proceeds going to your favorite charity. If you are a lawyer, that probably will be a slush fund of some sort. We can hold these events for each legal matter I've been involved in. That could be quite a bit of cash for your slush fund. Maybe you can give it to the hunting club that local lawyers are famous for.

Here's an even better idea: Let's invite the judges who made the rules to come and explain themselves and accept questions from me and the audience. How many do you think will accept that invitation?

Let's see how bold you are. I'm free most any time--after all, I've been cheated out of my job, and so has my wife. (You wouldn't know anything about that now would you?) I await your reply.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon. No. 2:

Why don't you post from work like you used to? Afraid you will get outed if you do that? Maybe one of your friends from Haskell Slaughter told you about the dangers of posting smart-ass comments to the Schnauzer from work?

You're still not safe. I know your IP address from home, so maybe we can discuss that in a legal proceeding shortly.

Since you like to throw questions at me and then hide behind the term "Anonymous," why don't you answer this question for our readers: Have you ever been involved in cheating someone out of her job, at a company your law firm represents, because that person filed a lawsuit for which you had no legitimate defense?

Does it make you feel big and tough to help pull stunts like that?

What a small, pathetic person you are.

trotsky said...

Unfortunately, this is exactly what I've come to expect from the legal system. I grew up in the 50s and 60s. When I got out of the Marines in '73 and watched the Watergate hearings on TV, lawyers were represented by people like John Mitchell, John Dean, Jeb Magruder, and Richard Kleindienst. Ben-Veniste appeared to be idealistic then, but we've all seen where that road ended, haven't we? I think Richard Ben-Veniste could give Bruce Cutler a run for his money in the ethically-challenged category.

Clinton exemplified the lawyer with his parsing of the word "is" during his deposition and Ken Starr and his merry band of Federalist Society radicals lived up to everyone's worst expectations of lawyers.

Obama and his co-conspirator, Eric Holder, haven't done anything to change perception of lawyers. I've got a friend who's an attorney and a judge but from what I've seen, he's an exception to what I've come to expect from lawyers: venal, self-interested cash-whores who are willing to accept that torture, as it is defined in the US Code, is really not all that bad.

Marc Rich walks free as do the likes of Erik Prince and Richard Cheney, while Leonard Peltier remains imprisoned. This isn't the America I was raised to believe in, it's more like a gulag society with third world jobs waiting for college and high school graduates alike. Hell, a well-trained auto mechanic has a better chance of providing for his family in this country than someone who's studied and gotten degrees in areas like psychology, social work, or even mathematics.

Nice job we've done of leaving our kids a legacy.