If you asked average Americans to describe President Barack Obama's philosophy on justice issues, you probably would be greeted with blank stares.
That would happen partly because many average Americans don't keep up with justice issues. But it also would happen, in part, because Obama has taken precious few strong stands on fundamental matters of right and wrong. In fact, the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ), under Attorney General Eric Holder, is known mostly for having amoeba-like qualities--it's a shapeless blob that doesn't stand for much of anything. And Holder is making a strong case for himself as the most ineffectual attorney general in U.S. history.
But a breaking story out of Philadelphia has provided insights into what we might call "The Obama Doctrine" on justice issues, and here it is:
"We won't do a thing about cases involving war crimes, financial fraud, or prosecutorial misconduct. But, by God, we are going to make the world safe from traffic-ticket scofflaws."
That seems to be the take-home lesson from last week's report that nine current or former traffic-court judges in Philadelphia have been indicted for conspiracy and fraud, involving a widespread scheme to fix traffic tickets for those who are well connected. A court clerk and two businessmen also were indicted. Here is a description of the charges, from a report at philly.com:
The charges, outlined in a 77-count indictment, described "a well-understood conspiracy of silence" that created two distinct courts: one where typical citizens paid for their infractions, and a second where offenders with the right connections won acquittals or saw their fines or cases disappear. . . .
The indictment alleged that a practice was more the rule than the exception--judges or their assistants shredding documents, shifting cases to friendly judges, and hiding behind code words. Instead of bluntly asking a colleague to quash a ticket, judges allegedly asked for "consideration" on certain cases and then watched them disappear.
Consideration, the indictment said, was reserved for friends and relatives, ward leaders, and contractors or merchants who could trade favors of their own. Requests came by phone, in person, and in notes dropped in a box at a local bar.
A reasonable citizen might ask, "Why is this a federal matter?" Public-corruption cases almost always involve the use of federal wires or mail systems, and often include the exchange of money, so that gives the DOJ jurisdiction.
Perhaps the bigger question is this: Why did the Obama Justice Department spend three years investigating traffic tickets in Philadelphia while it has ignored far more serious wrongdoing around the country?
Let's consider just a few of the stories we've reported here at Legal Schnauzer:
* Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman sits in a Louisiana federal prison because of bribery charges that were brought almost one full year after the statute of limitations had expired. The prosecution team, led by Bush-era U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, engaged in rampant misconduct; powerful evidence points to juror misconduct; and U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller gave jury instructions that did not match the applicable law.
* Mississippi lawyer Paul Minor and former state judge John Whitfield sit in federal prisons because U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate gave jury instructions on honest-services fraud that did not come close to matching the actual law. Another former state judge, Wes Teel, has been released after serving his sentence for a crime he did not commit.
* Bonnie Cahalane, a Clanton, Alabama, resident, recently spent almost five months in jail because of an alleged debt connected to her divorce case. Alabama law plainly states that a litigant is not subject to contempt of court or imprisonment because of a property-related debt from the dissolution of a marriage. Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds threw Ms. Cahalane in jail anyway and has unlawfully forced her to place her house for sale.
* Sherry Rollins, a Birmingham resident, and her two daughters have spent more than seven years under an unlawful divorce judgment issued by Shelby County Circuit Judge D. Al Crowson. The order wildly favors Ted Rollins, the CEO of Campus Crest Communities and Ms. Rollins' former husband. Ted Rollins also just happens to belong to one of the nation's wealthiest families, the folks behind Orkin Pest Control. Sherry Rollins initiated divorce proceedings in Greenville, South Carolina, where the family lived, and the case was litigated there for three years. Ted Rollins somehow got the venue changed when it appeared he was going to receive unfavorable outcomes in Greenville. Crowson took the case, even though black-letter law shows he had no jurisdiction.
* U.S. District Judge William M. Acker Jr. granted summary judgment in my employment lawsuit against the University of Alabama System, even though I was not allowed to conduct any discovery. Black-letter federal law says summary judgment cannot be considered, much less granted, when the opposing party has not been allowed to conduct adequate discovery. Acker flagrantly violated his oath to uphold the law by denying the right to conduct discovery that would prove my case.
Three of the cases noted above originated in federal courts, so the DOJ clearly has jurisdiction to investigate those matters. The two others--the Cahalane and Rollins cases--involve state-court public corruption and probable use of federal mails or wires, which also would invoke federal jurisdiction.
All five cases involve wrongdoing that is far more serious than that alleged in Philadelphia. But has the Obama DOJ looked at any of these cases? We've seen no sign of it. And those are only a few such cases that we've raised here--on one blog, in one state.
To be clear, we are all for nailing corrupt traffic-court judges. Those are publicly funded positions, and they should not be sullied by bribery and fraud. But the Obama DOJ would be taken much more seriously if it addressed corruption across the board, especially in cases that involve serious abuses of the public trust.
How flimsy is the Philadelphia case? Two of the indicted judges are charged with fixing one traffic ticket each.
Can we all say, "Good grief"?
Meanwhile, Mark Fuller, Henry Wingate, Sibley Reynolds, Al Crowson, William Acker Jr., and countless other judicial thugs continue to serve.
We are glad to see the Obama DOJ has awakened to the problem of courtroom corruption. But the Philadelphia story appears to be a classic case of worrying about the wart on your butt while your pants are on fire.