Monday, February 25, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court's Reputation Sinks Into Toilet With Its Refusal To Review Paul Minor Convictions

Paul Minor
The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it would not grant certiorari review in the case of Paul Minor, a former trial lawyer from Mississippi. Citizens who closely followed the Bush v. Gore debacle after the 2000 presidential election already know the high court's reputation is in tatters. Any doubters ought to be convinced by the refusal to consider the Minor convictions, which probably are due to be overturned on at least a dozen grounds.

No. 1 on the list, for purposes of the SCOTUS petition, was that the high court's ruling in a 2010 case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling means the jury instructions in Minor were incorrect, and the convictions no longer rest on good law.

Minor's legal team, led by criminal-justice expert Albert Alschuler, makes a powerful argument to that effect in a 237-page petition filed with the high court. (The full petition can be viewed at the end of this post.) There can be no serious debate that Alschuler is correct, and here is why: Minor and two codefendants--former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield--were tried under the federal honest-services fraud statute and convicted on alleged violations of Mississippi state bribery law. But SCOTUS used Skilling v. U.S., 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010) to establish a uniform national standard in honest-services cases and found that they must be grounded in federal law, not state laws.

Even the government has conceded in briefs and oral arguments that Skilling made the jury instructions in Minor incorrect, and that means the argument for overturning the convictions is about as close to cut and dried as the Supreme Court will ever find. So why did the justices refuse to hear the case? The message to the public seems to be this: "Even though this case was decided by bad law, and both sides agree on that, we simply can't be bothered with it. Next."

Is it any wonder that many Americans have lost faith in once-exalted institutions?

If the rule of law still meant anything in the US of A, the Minor convictions would be overturned on the Skilling issue alone. But Alschuler's petition for certiorari review provides alarming evidence that problems with the Minor case go way beyond that. That evidence reaches the level of frightening when you consider that Whitfield remains in federal prison, and Minor soon will be sent from a Pensacola prison to a halfway house in New Orleans to carry out his term. Teel was released in 2012 after completing his sentence.

Courts that are riddled with corruption and incompetence have ugly consequences for real Americans. Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield have received a graduate education in that fact of postmodern life.

Were these gentlemen convicted in a trial court that was fair, impartial, and firmly grounded in the law? Upon reading Alschuler's petition, a reasonable person can only respond, "Hell, no!" The U.S. Supreme Court, of course, apparently could not be bothered to read the petition.

The most shocking revelations come in pages 8-11, where Alschuler addresses the instructions that U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate gave the jury.

First, Alschuler points out that the instructions included the following language:

. . . you can fix it in your mind that when you see honest services, that you know we are talking about an alleged violation of the bribery laws of the State of Mississippi.

We now know that Skilling made that language an inaccurate statement of the law. In essence, the U.S. Supreme Court's own actions, in Skilling, made those words outdated and unlawful. Will the high court fix the problem on behalf of the Minor defendants--and other citizens who might someday find themselves convicted based on bad law? Nope.

Problems with the jury instructions in Minor go way beyond Skilling-related issues. Alschuler drives that home with this:

The instructions continued, "[T]he government must prove . . . that the particular defendant entered into a corrupt agreement for Paul S. Minor to provide the particular judge with things of value specifically with the intent to influence the action or judgment of the judge. . . ." They added, "To constitute the offense of offering a bribe, there need not be a mutual intent on the part of both the giver and the offeree or accepter of the bribe."

That language is likely to leave even a highly educated person scratching his head. One can only wonder how it affected the average federal juror in Mississippi. To put it bluntly, the instruction makes no frickin' sense--and Alschuler points that out with this not-so-subtle statement:

The court made no effort to reconcile its statement that an agreement was necessary with its statement that no mutual intent was required.

How do two people reach an agreement without having mutual intent? God only knows. But we send citizens to prison based on jury instructions such as these. And we have appellate courts and a Supreme Court that let it happen.

In a rare example of a lawyer communicating candidly about the ineptness of a federal court, Alschuler writes on page 26 of his petition:

". . . the district court's direction was cast in extraordinarily confusing language. It is virtually impossible to divine the instruction's meaning, but it appears to require an agreement between two people about what one of them will later intend. . . . The jurors could only have thrown up their hands."

No serious individual could argue, either before or after Skilling, that the Paul Minor case was correctly decided; even the government doesn't argue that. And yet, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the honest-services convictions, and the U.S. Supreme Court washed its hands of the matter. It all is one more sign that Americans should have no confidence in their justice system.

SCOTUS, in essence, is sending this message: "Welcome to the 'wild, wild West' of American justice. It's the environment we have, and it now bears our stamp of approval. If some of you decide to take matters of justice into your own hands, have at it--and good luck."


Anonymous said...

In a recent post on Legal Schnauzer I read that Dana Seigelman had met and talked with Joe Biden regarding her father, Don Seigelman and he had told her that he was looking into the Seigelman debacle.

I can only think that if the Minor family would contact Joe Biden also there might be some help there too. A good way to get in touch with him would be through Ruthie Rollins in Atlanta. I noticed in an anonymous comment on your blog that someone in the Rollins family commented that Ruthie had been flying Joe Biden around during the 2012 campaign in a plane of hers and Joe has shown up at many Rollins family get togethers through the years as he is a family friend. Could the Minor family or their attorneys start to gain influence via another southerner who has Joe's ear and attention. Often times the way to a man's conscience is through a woman who is close to him.

Anonymous said...

This case is a travesty--and a tragedy. Paul Minor was not even allowed to attend his wife's funeral. Disgusting.

TLR said...

So SCOTUS doesn't care if a lower appellate court refuses to abide by its ruling? Same thing happened in Siegelman case, didn't it?

legalschnauzer said...

Anon at 6:45--

I'm sure the Minor family would be glad to consider anything at this point. Doesn't the Rollins family have a big presence in Delaware? Is that how Ruthie Rollins came to be buds with Joe Biden? Is she a Democrat? If you have enough money, it probably doesn't matter, does it?

Anonymous said...

Why have a U.S. Supreme Court? Hasn't it become just another layer of corruption? If it's not going to make sure lower courts apply the law correctly, what's the point?

Sharon said...

I think the legal establishment, now that it's become infected with Rove-style corporatism, wants to ensure that people like Paul Minor and Don Siegelman always carry the tag of "felon."

Anonymous said...

Glad you mentioned Bush v Gore. Not sure SCOTUS ever will get its reputation back after that fiasco.

Anonymous said...

How much money must appellants spend to have a petition filed with SCOTUS, only to see it not even heard? And I imagine in many cases, the petition is not even read. What a waste.

legalschnauzer said...

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its current pathetic state, is about pomp, circumstance, and political ideology. It has very little to do with justice. Americans should ask themselves, "Is this a good use of our tax dollars?"

Anonymous said...

The Supreme Court supposedly performs administrative functions over lower federal courts, right? Can we assume that they probably aren't doing a very good job of that either.

Anonymous said...

L.S.: I don't know her politics but I do KNOW that Joe is her close friend. And yes, she grew up in Lewes Delaware.

Anonymous said...

Bacchus should be the one in prison getting porked by Rove.

Anonymous said...

Let me see if I have this straight: The government admitted the jury instructions were incorrect, and yet the appellate court did not overturn and the U.S. Supreme Court did not bother to hear the case? Isn't that sort of like O.J. admitting he stabbed his ex wife and her friend, and the judge saying, "Not guilty"?

Philbert said...

I suggest we let judges and lawyers fund our courts. They are the only ones who benefit from them anyway. Let them pay for infrastructure, overhead, salaries, etc.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Paul Minor win some big judgments and settlements against Big Tobacco and Big Asbestos? If so, that probably explains what has happened to him.

legalschnauzer said...

Yes, I believe his firm also won a number of major cases involving automobile safety.

jeffrey spruill said...

Courts that are riddled with corruption and incompetence have ugly consequences for real Americans. Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield have received a graduate education in that fact of postmodern life.


In my opinion-these are the most salient sentences in this post.


The U.S. Supreme Court, of course, apparently could not be bothered to read the petition.


And that's the second most salient sentence in this post.

We're in BIG trouble.

Let's see your papers please!

Anonymous said...

12 Angry Men, 1957 ..

"... How the law ought to 'work' ..."

Anonymous said...

How about "Occupy Wall Street" style demonstrations, calling for Congress to investigate the judicial branch? Once Congress realizes our tax dollars are being wasted on an "injustice system," perhaps it could threaten to de-fund the courts. Would that suddenly make federal judges a little less arrogant?

e.a.f. said...

No surprise with that decision. The U.S.A. certainly can no longer call its self the home of the free. too many are locked up in jail illegally with no chance of getting out. The Supreme court of the U.S.A. is a disgrace and not much better than the taliban ruled courts in some other countries.

Obama ought to give Biden the role of cleaning up the "justice" system in the u.s.a. Jails in the U.S.A. have become big business. The more people in jail, the merrier for their stock holders. The continued incarceration of political enemies sends a very strong and undemocratic message to all people. Get on the wrong side of us and you will be in jail for a very long time. Sort of how the Chinese government works along with that of Russia and Syria.

Perhaps some of these people in jail might consider appealing to the United nations. From what I've been reading the U.S.A. no longer can consider itself part of the democratic countries

People might also want to consider large scale rallies which attract t.v. coverage because if it can happen to anyone as these articles have well pointed out.

Anonymous said...

What was Minor accused of, how was his case unfair?

legalschnauzer said...

I've written probably 75 posts on that subject. I would suggest you go to the search box at the top of my blog and type "Paul Minor" and enter. It will call up everything I've written on the subject, and more than likely will answer any question you have.