Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Sentencing Commission trying to pull a fast one on district judges

 This is crazy.  The Sentencing Commission released a sentencing tool called JSIN so that judges can see average sentences before making a decision.  The problem -- the statistics exclude all sentences in which the judge did not impose incarceration.  Michael Yeager discusses the flawed data in this article at Law360:

First, JSIN excludes all sentences for cooperating witnesses, meaning cases in which the government filed and the court granted a Section 5K1.1 motion for a substantial assistance departure....

Second, JSIN includes mandatory minimum sentences, which by definition are not examples of how judges have exercised discretion. In fact, they're the opposite....

Third, and most important, JSIN excludes all nonimprisonment sentences: not just nonimprisonment sentences due to a Section 5K1.1 motion, or application of Section 5K3.1's safety valve, but rather all nonimprisonment.  That is, all sentences that are probation only, fine only, alternative confinement only (such as home confinement) or any combination of those options that doesn't also include prison time.

At positions on the sentencing table where the range is zero to six months, that means that JSIN is excluding sentences within the advisory range.  And even at many higher positions on the sentencing table, a substantial portion of cases are nonimprisonment.  Yet, JSIN excludes all of them from its averages and medians.

The effect of these choices can be dramatic. When JSIN is queried for stats on the position of the sentencing table for U.S. Sentencing Commission Section 2T1.1 — tax evasion, offense level 17 and criminal history I — JSIN reports the median sentence as 18 months.  But when one uses the commission's full dataset to calculate the median on that same cohort (Section 2T1.1, level 17, history I, no 5K1.1) and includes sentences of probation, the median is significantly lower.  Instead of JSIN's 18 months, the median is just 12 months. That's a whole six months lower — and a 33% decrease....

[B]y conducting a more complete study of the Sentencing Commission's data than the JSIN provides, the defense could also examine particular aspects of a guidelines calculation, such as loss or drug weight.  The defense could strip out mandatory minimum sentences or do an analysis of 10 or 15 years of cases, not just five.  They could also break down cases by circuit or district, not just nationally.  Now that JSIN is available, defense attorneys should consider all the above.  It was already a good idea to use accurate and complete data analysis of similarly situated defendants. But now the need has increased. The defense now has to counter JSIN and the false impression it creates.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Supreme Court new argument style

 The Supreme Court has a new argument format, as detailed in this Court guide to oral advocates on page 7.  Jonathan Adler explains it here:

The Supreme Court has been utilizing a new oral argument format this term. Audio of the arguments is streamed live through the Court's website. Advocates get a brief opportunity to introduce and frame their case, followed by a period of open questioning, followed by an opportunity for each justice, in order of seniority, to ask additional questions they may have. ... The new format seems to result in longer arguments, but also more probative ones, and live audio is great.

One interesting development with the new format is that Justice Thomas has asked the first question in the vast majority of arguments thus far. Indeed, as of yesterday, Justice Thomas had asked the first question to all but one of the advocates so far this term. This is a positive development, as Justice Thomas' questions are good ones.

That last part about Justice Thomas now asking questions has been really interesting.  Many have said that he really enjoyed asking questions during the telephonic arguments where questioning would go in order of seniority.  And because he liked it, he likes to get his questions in first after the advocates finish their brief introduction.

Justice Sotomayor explained that the format of questioning changed because the female Justices were getting interrupted more often than their male counterparts.   

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Shame on you prosecutors. Shame.

 Prosecutors were very bad in a recent trial before Judge Cooke. So bad, the 11th Circuit called them out:

More broadly, however, I feel compelled to address the  prosecution’s conduct and the tactics it employed throughout the trial. The prosecution fell short of the high level of professionalism that we expect prosecutors to embody, even if their actions did not rise to the level of misconduct. An unfortunate but notable feature of this trial was that the district court exerted considerable time and energy corralling the prosecution’s often wayward tactics. Starting in voir dire and continuing through the testimony of multiple witnesses, the prosecution frequently appeared to ignore the court’s rulings when it disagreed with them, eliciting remarks from the court including:
• “Counsel, you know that’s improper.”
• “[W]hy would you go there?”
• “We went over this. . . . I may be wrong, but I ruled. Let’s go.”
• “We’ve had this conversation through other witnesses. Counsel, move on.”
• “We did this yesterday. I’m not revisiting. Anybody [who] wants to go back to the transcript, can.”
• “I don’t know . . . how many other languages to speak to you. . . . I said how to proceed. Proceed that way.”
• “What you have to do is to remember we have had some rules in this trial and somehow they seem to have been forgotten.”
The court’s admonitions, it seems, had little effect. After a particularly volatile exchange between a prosecutor and defense witness Miller, in which the prosecutor admitted that he lost his composure, the district court warned that he was “close” to causing a mistrial. Afterward, outside the presence of the jury, she admonished the prosecutor, telling him: “You’re better than having to go to the lowest part of your anger in order to examine this witness. . . . [Y]ou’re an experienced cross-examiner. You didn’t have to do
that. I would have expected that of someone of less experience than you.” The district court lamented that things “got very messy and uncontrolled.”

But apparently not bad enough to get a new trial or reversal. Instead of any actual consequences, the court says, in a concurrence by all three judges, that the prosecutors shouldn't do this again.  


Nothing is going to change regarding the epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct until there are some consequences.  I mean, the prosecutors in this case aren't even named in the opinion.  Defendants receive obstruction enhancements for less.  Walks of shame are not enough...

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

11th Circuit changes font and format of its opinions

 You thought we only covered the bickering amongst our district judges?  No, dear readers! We also break the important news in the 11th Circuit, including that the court finally updated its font and format.  It used to look like this:

And here's the new one:

Monday, October 18, 2021

Breaking -- Ryon McCabe is your new Magistrate Judge


It looks like the judges worked through their deadlock... by turning to the AO's published guidance which permits for a revote and if that doesn't result in a majority, then the Chief Judge gets to choose.  It's unclear whether the revote broke up the logjam or whether the Judge Altonaga had to make the selection, but either way, it's over.

Congratulations to Ryon McCabe, a really good guy.  We had cases against each other when we were both new lawyers (he was an AUSA and I was an AFPD).  He was also honorable and is a smart guy.  He's been in private practice for some time now and McCabe Rabin.  The FBI will do its background check, which usually takes a few months, and then he will sit in West Palm Beach.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

RIP Shirley Henderson

 She covered all of the big trials in Miami back in the day.  The Miami Herald has the obit here.

She once said the cast of characters she captured in her renderings — the cops, terrorists, judges, lawyers, drug smugglers, exiles and everyday folk — was just so Miami. “This is about our mix — this is the socio-political and economical history of Miami.” Henderson’s bold pastel strokes have also been exhibited at HistoryMiami Museum in a popular exhibit in 2010, and are on permanent display at the University of Miami School of Law, the Museum of Art of Fort Lauderdale, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland and nationally at museums in Michigan and Ohio.
Her courtroom work even hangs on the walls of South Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab after Jo Ann Bass bought 10 of her pieces in 1995 to hang on permanent exhibit at the landmark restaurant. “I have done every major trial in federal court for the last 35 years. These are historical documents. I think it’s very important to record the trials,” Henderson told the Herald in 2015.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

How do federal judges break their own tie?

That's the difficult question facing the federal judges in our district right now.  

I previously reported on the short list for Magistrate Judge in West Palm Beach.  This short list was recommended by a committee appointed by our Chief Judge.  Last week, the district judges interviewed the five finalists (as is the practice in the Southern District of Florida). After the interviews, the 16 active judges voted on who would be the next Magistrate Judge.  

The usual procedure would have the announcement that very day, but strangely I didn't hear that evening who got the nod.  And my sources weren't talking.   

Now we've found out why -- the vote ended in a tie* with no tie-breaking procedure.  And no one is budging.

So now what?  Our jury of judges seem to be hung.

Any advice for our brothers and sisters on the bench?

Do we need a good Allen charge for this situation?  

Members of the Judiciary: I'm going to ask that you continue your deliberations in an effort to agree on a magistrate judge. And I have a few additional comments I’d like for you to consider as you do so. Remember at all times that no district judge is expected to give up an honest belief about the merits of an applicant. But after fully considering the interviews and application, you must agree upon a magistrate judge if you can. You should not be hurried in your deliberations and should take all the time you feel is necessary. I now ask that you retire once again and continue your deliberations with these additional comments in mind. Apply them in conjunction with all the other instructions I have previously given to you.

*I have heard conflicting stories about whether the tie is 8-8 between two candidates of 5-5-5 (with one judge not voting) for three candidates.  Because I can't get confirmation on the vote, I am not posting the names just yet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021