Archive for June, 2010

Unhappy Student or Dissatisfied Lawyer? Sorry to Ask, but Why are You Still Here?

Friday, June 25th, 2010

 

There’s an article over on the ABA Journal’s website today called “How Law Schools Can Produce Happier Students and Satisfied Lawyers.”  We recommend reading through the comments section.  It’s a good glimpse at one of the biggest problems with the legal profession today — namely, that there are too many lawyers who don’t belong here.

Far too many people go to law school who shouldn’t.  Plenty go into the law who shouldn’t.  Is it any wonder that they wind up unhappy and dissatisfied?

If you’re going to law school by default, because you can’t think of what else to do with your life, then please don’t.  Anybody who spends a hundred grand (or gets that much into debt) just to “find himself” has seriously bad judgment.  And judgment is sort of a basic prerequisite to the practice of law.  It’s one of the most important things any legal employer is looking for.  Please go away. Now.

If you’re not doing well in law school, then get out.  Seriously.  Your first job is going to depend hugely on your grades.  And your subsequent jobs will depend on that first job.  And legal employers do care about your grades, even decades later, believe it or not.  You’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of minimal job satisfaction.  Also, contrary to popular belief, law school actually is a good preparation for the practice of law.  The kinds of questions you’re flubbing on your exams require precisely the kind of issue-spotting and thoughtful analysis that you’re going to have to do every time a new matter crosses your desk.  You’re actually going to have to continue learning and applying new areas of law constantly, throughout your career.  If you haven’t figured it out by the end of your 1L year, then save yourself the money and a lot of frustration and find something else to do with your life.

If you find law school too stressful, then get out.  Law school is stressful for everyone, that’s normal.  But if you’re finding (more…)

Skilling Decision: Good for Justice, Bad for Jurisprudence

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

jeff skilling

It looks like we spotted the trend.  Unfortunately.

Last week we noted that, when faced with an ambiguous statute, some on the Supreme Court are now willing to read new language into the statute, rather than toss it back to Congress to do it right.  And we wondered if that might be a harbinger of what was to come in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach and Skilling.

Well, those cases came down this morning, and sure enough the majority decided to read in new language, rather than toss out the statute for being vague.

It’s great for the defendants, whose honest-services convictions got tossed.  But to get there the Court had to change the rules.  Now, judicial invention is a perfectly acceptable method of statutory interpretation… so long as the new language is what “everybody knows” the statute really meant to say.  And that’s bloody dangerous. 

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We’ve been paying close attention to this issue (see other posts here, here, here and here), as have many others, because the feds love charging people with honest services fraud.  It’s so vague and open-ended, that it potentially criminalizes any activity that’s outside one’s job description.  That makes it a great catchall when you can’t prove something more substantive.  But it’s also not at all what Congress intended.

“Honest services” fraud was originally a judge-created law.  There wasn’t any statute criminalizing it, it just sort evolved via common law, accepted in all the Circuits.  But we don’t do common-law crimes in this country, for one thing, and the mail fraud statute didn’t say anything about intangible rights, so in 1987 the Supreme Court threw out the common-law version of honest services fraud.  If Congress wanted to criminalize it, then that was up to Congress.

The idea was pretty simple: If you had a position of trust, and you abused that position for private gain (say, by taking bribes or kickbacks), then you were depriving people of the services you ought to have been giving them had you been honest.  You were getting paid under the table to do your job wrong.  So in 1988 Congress came up with 18 U.S.C. § 1346.

But the language didn’t say anything about abusing a position of trust.  Instead, it just said that (more…)

Another reason to hate NY’s “Hate Crimes” law

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

snake_oil_hate_criminal

“Hate” is not an element of New York’s “hate crime” law.  You don’t have to hate to commit a hate crime.  Instead, the law merely requires that you have “a belief or perception” regarding a person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.  (The legislature could have saved a lot of bother by simply saying “a characteristic of a person over which that person has no control.”  That’s the policy they’re pursuing, even if they don’t realize it.)

There’s a list of eligible crimes at PL §485.05(3).  If you commit one of those crimes, and if you either chose your victim or committed the crime because of such “a belief or perception,” then you are guilty of a hate crime in New York, and now face harsher punishment.

This is a pretty vague statute.  You don’t need to have any specific belief or perception about someone, just “a” belief or perception.

The Queens DA’s office — already known more for its zeal than for its sense of justice — has now taken that vagueness to its logical extreme.  They’ve taken the reductio ad absurdum and made it office policy.

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The New York Times reports today that the Queens DA has been going after people who defraud old people, not because of any animus towards old people, but because of a belief about old people.  Namely, that old people are easy to defraud. 

Ordinarily, such frauds do not carry any mandatory jail time.  But if charged as a hate crime, they carry mandatory upstate prison time.  Can it be that the legislature really intended this outcome?

By the Queens DA’s logic, every scam targeted at the elderly is a hate crime, because the scam rests on a belief that old folks are easy to scam. 

By this same logic, any (more…)

Myth #2: Cops Can’t Lie

Friday, June 18th, 2010

For as long as we can remember, the word on the street has always been that cops cannot lie.  So if you’re doing a drug deal with an undercover cop, and you ask him point blank if he’s a police officer, then he has to tell you the truth.  He might try to technically get out of it by saying yes in a sarcastic tone of voice, but he has to be able to testify later on that he did say he was a cop.

And for as long as we can remember, we thought that was dumber than dirt.  The first time we heard this, back in our dim and distant teens, we imagined something like this:

ruacop

It just made no sense.  And, of course, it’s simply not true.  No undercover cop is ever going to jeopardize his investigation or his safety by admitting to the fact that he (or she) is a cop.  And there is no rule anywhere that says they have to.

But even so, this myth has persisted.  We can’t count how many cases we’ve dealt with where (more…)

Criminal Law Myth #1: You Can Drop the Charges

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

So Jacki called the cops on her man.  She didn’t mean for him to go to jail, really.  But it was a stressful situation, and this was the best way she could think of to get back at him.  It felt great, and having the cops on her side — having the cops as a weapon — was totally empowering.

But enough’s enough.  He’s been locked up for a couple of weeks, now.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  And it’s really hard for Jacki, what with him being out of work this whole time, and not being around to help with the baby.  And he really didn’t do anything wrong… it’s just that, you know… she wasn’t thinking straight.  And now it’s time for her man to come home.

That should be easy enough.  All she needs to do is drop the charges, right?  She’ll just go over to the DA and say she doesn’t want to pursue the case. 

We imagine that something like this is what’s going on in Jacki’s mind:

drop_charges_fantasy450

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Unfortunately, real life is more like (more…)

Dammit, Dillon!

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Just a quick update.  The Supreme Court decided Dillon v. U.S. today (read the opinion here), and the decision totally sucks.  Here’s what we said about it a couple of weeks ago:

There are a lot of federal inmates serving unfairly long sentences, due to the bizarre discrepancy in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.  (See our latest piece on this here.)  In 2007, the Guidelines were amended a teeny bit, permitting a 2-level reduction for crack cases.  In 2008, that was made retroactive, so prisoners could get resentenced.  Dillon wanted to get resentenced.  But he wanted more than the 2-level reduction.  He wanted a departure from the Guidelines recommendation itself, as permitted by Booker.  But the feds say Booker only applies to full sentencing proceedings, not to resentencings like this — this is just an adjustment of the guideline range that should have been applied to a pre-Booker sentence.  As Scalia pointed out at oral argument, that would require the courts to essentially disregard Booker.  And given the universal loathing of the crack/powder disparity, we think a finding for Dillon would give the courts the ability to take the injustice into account and impose variance sentences more proportional to those for powder.

But noooo.

Writing for a 7-1 majority (Stevens dissented, and Alito recused himself), Justice Sotomayor said that Booker doesn’t apply here — the Guidelines are not advisory, and have to be applied as they were back in the bad old days.

This is just infuriating.  The 100-1 disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine is fundamentally unjust.  One would think that the judiciary would just wipe it out as simply unconstitutional.  But instead, we get the Supremes saying §3582(c)(2) — the whole point of which is lenity for those sentenced under the disparate Guidelines — doesn’t allow for any lenity beyond what the Guidelines themselves permit.

Sotomayor’s legal reasoning isn’t bad.  It’s actually pretty good.  But her result is appalling.

“Collars for Dollars”

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

collars_for_dollars

“Nathan, when you become mayor, I’m gonna be the first volunteer for your security detail.” 

This was a detective speaking, back when we were an ADA in the Manhattan DA’s office.  My office, as usual, had about five cops in it.  I liked this detective, and asked how come he wanted that job. 

“So I can be first in line to put a bullet in your head.”

He was only half kidding.

The reason is because I’d just proposed, in detail, exactly how I would cut out the NYPD’s systematic corruption that caused — and still causes — a great deal of injustice.

Several years have passed, and nothing has changed.  The NYPD is still set up to fail.  No matter how good its officers may be — and most really are quite good — the NYPD is designed not to serve justice, but to frustrate it.

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There are several areas that need fixing.  But the single fix that would have the greatest effect would be to end the NYPD’s “collars for dollars” mentality. 

The force is structured so that cops wind up getting paid a commission — actually a bounty — for every arrest they make.  There’s a huge financial incentive for a cop to make an arrest, and there is zero downside if the arrest turns out to be bullshit.  Cops can easily game the system to maximize their pay.

Meanwhile, there’s huge political pressure on each command to “make its numbers” each month.  Not quotas, per se, but a sufficient number of arrests to justify the command’s existence to the politicians who (more…)

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
tammany_tiger
We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (more…)

Can Yoo Be Sued?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

9th_circuit

In the early days of the War on Terrorism, the Bush administration wanted to know what interrogation techniques were legal.  So it asked the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel for a memo on what could and could not be done to prisoners.  Staff lawyer John Yoo was tasked with doing the research and writing.  He did his research, wrote his memo, and that was that.

Well, no.  That was not that.  Some people didn’t agree with his legal reasoning.  More people (most of whom never even read the memo) shrilly lambasted it as a “war crime.”  We’re not particular fans of the memo ourselves (see our parody of it here), but we think it’s beyond stupid to call it a war crime, or even the slightest bit of misconduct.  He did what any lawyer in that situation is supposed to do: he analyzed existing law, and gave his opinion of what the law said.  The fact that other people disagree, even disagree strongly, doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  The fact that his conclusions don’t comport with other people’s policies or principles still doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  Even if he was wrong, that doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.

But now the 9th Circuit is struggling with the issue of whether Mr. Yoo can actually be sued for having written that memo.  Again, we’re no fans of the memo, but how he could possibly be sued for having given fair legal advice is beyond us.  Allowing this case to go forward, as we’ll discuss in a minute, would have enormously bad consequences for the government and the military.

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The case was brough by Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, who was arrested in 2002 for plotting a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack.  Padilla was in military custody for about four years, during which time he claims to have been subjected to sleep deprivation, stress positions, extended periods of light and dark, and other interrogation techniques.  Padilla filed a lawsuit last year against John Yoo, claiming that Yoo’s memos “set in motion a series of events that resulted in (more…)

Deadlines, Schmedlines

Monday, June 14th, 2010

supreme court fountain

It was a case of very strange bedfellows today at the Supreme Court.  The 5-4 decision in Dolan v. U.S. (opinion here) wasn’t split on ideological lines, but on lines of seniority.  The majority consisted of the five most junior Justices, while the senior Justices were joined in a solid dissent.  So Thomas and Alito sided with Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  And Roberts and Scalia were united with Stevens and Kennedy.

What gives?  We suggest that it reflects a changing approach to statutory interpretation. 

The case is about how to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5), which says a sentencing court has to order restitution within 90 days of sentencing, but fails to specify what happens if the deadline is missed.  Specifically, it says that, if losses aren’t calculated 10 days before sentencing, the court “shall set a date for the final determination of the victim’s losses, not to exceed 90 days after sentencing.”  That word “shall” is pretty strong, and its accepted meaning is “must.”  In other words, a court has no choice here, no discretion, but “must” set a restitution amount within 90 days.  But there is no provision for remedies if that doesn’t happen.  So the Court had to fill in the blanks.

The majority reasoned that, given that the whole point of the statute is to ensure speedy restitution to victims, Congress couldn’t possibly have intended for restitution to be forfeited if a court takes too long.  And Congress wasn’t particularly concerned with giving finality to defendants, but anyway so long as the defendant is on notice that restitution is in fact going to be ordered, the defendant isn’t harmed if the deadline is missed. 

The dissenting Justices pointed out that this interpretation makes a nullity of 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5).  The 90-day deadline is no deadline at all.  The majority allows restitution to be ordered at any time after sentencing, thereby gutting the plain language of the (more…)

Justice Souter: Closet Originalist?

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

edited_constitution

It’s hard not to love the recently-retired Justice Souter.  A one-of-a-kind individual who writes, not with a computer or even a typewriter, but with a fountain pen.  Who never uses email, cell phones or answering machines.  Whose home is filled with thousands of books, but no TV.  More than that, he doesn’t fit neatly into any particular camp.  Too liberal for the conservatives, and too old-fashioned for the liberals.  A former farmboy who lived in the same farmhouse all his life (until the weight of his books prompted a move last year), and yet at the same time as ivory-tower as they come.

But we’ve never been particular fans of his jurisprudence.  It seems too far removed from reality — both the realities of modern life, and the realities of law.  And the ironic thing is, it’s precisely because his judicial philosophy strives to reflect these realities as they change over time.  Because, despite being as stuck-in-the-past as can be imagined, he is not an originalist, but one who thinks the meaning of the Constitution must evolve with time.  And, being such an old-fashioned guy, he’s not exactly the most likely to know just how the times be a-changin’.

This was highlighted really well by his speech at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies this year.  (You can, and should, read the full text here.)

Souter used his speech to summarize why he thinks the jurisprudence of originalism is wrong.  Originalism is simply the idea that the meaning and principles of the Constitution do not change over time — and that reading in new meanings is little more than legislating from the bench.  Souter said this is wrongheaded, because the Constitution (more…)

Defining “Aggression”

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

icc

The International Criminal Court came into being almost 8 years ago.  It has jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and criminal aggression.  Well, that is, it has jurisdiction to prosecute those crimes once they’ve been defined.  And to date, they haven’t yet come up with a definition for “crimes of aggression.”  Nor have they specified the conditions where the ICC could get involved in such crimes.

But maybe that’s about to change.  Reuters reports that ICC delegates today have been busily “seeking to agree [on] a definition of state aggression, and how ICC investigations into the crime … could be triggered.”  A rule is expected to be announced and adopted tomorrow.

The current draft appears to be a compromise that allows member countries to “opt out” by affirmatively stating that they don’t want the ICC to be able to investigate them for aggression.  The idea is that this will make it harder to opt out, by forcing countries to announce that they don’t want to play by the grown-up, civilized rules.  Any member country that doesn’t opt out, or its leaders, could otherwise get investigated.

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The ICC is a creature of treaty, so it only affects countries that (more…)

Prosecutorial Extortion

Monday, June 7th, 2010

 

Extortion is a kind of threat.  A threat that’s so bad, it’s criminal.  For a threat to be criminal extortion, it needs to be of a kind to make someone do something against his will, that’s adverse to his own interests.

Threatening to kill a child if the parents don’t give you money, for example, would be extortion.  So too would be a civil lawyer’s threat to file criminal charges — even if such charges are warranted — if the other side doesn’t pony up with a settlement.  Another example is when a government official threatens to use his position to do something he’s perfectly entitled to do in the first place, unless the victim does him a favor first.

There are lots of examples of extortionate behavior.  But these last two examples demonstrate that the threatened action doesn’t itself have to be against the law.  The civil lawyer could go ahead and press criminal charges, but threatening to do so is against the law.  Ditto for the government official whose threat to merely do his job is a crime.  The point isn’t whether the threatened action is itself criminal, but whether the threat causes such fear as to override someone’s free will.

This is basic stuff.  Not exactly cutting-edge law here.

So how come nobody seems to have litigated the Queens (New York) District Attorney’s practice of extorting speedy trial waivers from defendants?

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In New York, there are a few different kinds of (more…)

The Suspense is Killing Us

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

300 supreme court

There are four Mondays left in June.  Four more days in which the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decisions in the 27 or so cases still out there this term.  That’s about one case per day from now till then.  We’re picturing the Justices pulling all-nighters, stacks of empty pizza boxes in the halls at 2 a.m. next to the burn bags (do they still use burn bags there?), and sleepy zombie-like clerks dropping in their tracks every now and then.

Some of those cases have to do with boring old civ pro or shipping or labor law.  But a whole bunch are about the cool stuff, criminal law.  Here are a few of the criminal cases we’re watching particularly closely:

Black v. United States
Weyrauch v. United States
Skilling v. United States

This trio of cases attack the “honest services” fraud law.  18 U.S.C. § 1346 was supposed to prevent political corruption, but Congress wrote it so sloppily that it’s become a catch-all crime for federal prosecutors.  Anyone can get charged with it, and nobody knows what it means.  The Court telegraphed its dislike of the statute during oral arguments of all (more…)

Upset by this week’s Miranda decision? Get over it.

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

miranda

So yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Berghuis v. Thompkins (opinion here) that you need to actually tell the cops that you’re invoking your right to remain silent, if you want them to stop asking questions (or at least not be able to use your subsequent responses against you).  Merely remaining silent isn’t the same as invoking the right.

This, of course, got all kinds of clever responses in the media, along the lines of “to invoke your right to remain silent, speak up!”  Very witty, we agree.

But we have to say, this decision is not that big a deal.

Our immediate reaction on reading the slip opinion, right when it came out, was “yeah, that sounds about right.”

We headed over to court for a case later that morning, and while we were sitting in chambers with some other defense lawyers and prosecutors, we summed up the Court’s decision.  The immediate reaction of literally everyone in the room was “yeah, that sounds about right.”  The judge’s law secretary added “isn’t that already how we do it here in New York?”

Later in the day, we discussed the case with some defense types who are fairly well-known for their pit-bull approach to the law.  Their immediate reaction was “yeah, that sounds about right.”

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Here’s how we see it, in a nutshell: (more…)