Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blogging the Ben Kuehne argument in the 11th Circuit

I was at the oral argument in the Ben Kuehne case this morning. The issue is whether the exception in section 1957 prevents the government from indicting a criminal defense lawyer for taking payment from a client, previously discussed here. Judge Cooke found that the exception applied and dismissed that count against Ben. The government appealed. To cut to the chase up front, Judge Cooke will be affirmed. Here's what happened:

The panel consisted of Judges Barkett, Hull and Quist. Quist is a district judge from Michigan. The government was represented by Vijay Shanker from DOJ in DC. John Nields represented Ben.

The government started out its argument saying that no case supported the defense. Judge Hull jumped on that statement and said this was a case of first impression -- no case supported the government either. The government conceded that point... not a strong start. It only got worse for the government from there.

Barkett asked whether there was any need for the exception if it applied only to clean money. In other words, a lawyer can take clean money any time, so the exception obviously applied only to tainted funds. The government conceded this point and agreed that the exception concerned illegal money, but countered that only as necessary and guaranteed by the 6th Amendment.

Hull then asked whether this interpretation rendered the exception meaningless AND THE GOVERNMENT LAWYER SAID YES. It is the government's position that the words in 1956 are meaningless. Judges Hull and Barkett stuck on this point for a while... Judge Hull finally said: Listen, we have to give words meaning. Sometimes that hurts criminal defendants, but sometimes it helps.

Barkett then asked what the ordinary meaning of the statute was and the response was: whatever the Supreme Court says it means. Barkett responded: "Oh come on." Judge Quist, who seemed the most friendly to the government then asked whether he was relying on Marbury v. Madison. Answer: Yes.

The tone and atmosphere during the government's initial presentation was very hostile.

Then John Nields got up. He was calm and the tone immediately changed. There was no hostility and he received much fewer questions. The argument started: "I represent Ben Kuehne, a frequent practitioner before this Court and a leader of the Bar." Nields explained that the purpose of the statute was to allow criminal defense lawyers to take cases -- if they were afraid they were going to get indicted, they wouldn't. He explained that the exception only applied to criminal cases, not civil cases and importantly not forfeiture cases.

Quist then asked whether a lawyer could be paid with the proceeds from a bank robbery. Wouldn't that be wrong because the victims wouldn't get paid back? Nields explained, I think to the judges' satisfaction, that he couldn't be prosecuted for accepting the funds, but that they would be forfeited and that the victims would be paid back.

Nields went on to talk about the public policy choices that Congress made, and Judge Hull joked that Congress was probably just concerned with the public fisc -- it didn't want defendants with money to have to rely on public counsel.

DOJ said in rebuttal that there were only 3 cases against lawyers under 1957 and that we should just trust them to do the right thing.

Judge Hull ended the argument by explaining that they have had many Fabio Ochoa cases and knew the backdrop of what was going on. They weren't naive. But, she said, they were dealing with a very specific statute and the government had to understand that. Judge Quist responded: "I am naive."

All in all, I think there is a very strong likelihood -- based on the argument -- that Judge Cooke's decision to dismiss the 1957 count against Ben will be affirmed. This is the right and just result. I obviously am biased in the case as I filed -- along with some great lawyers from WilmerHale in DC who actually wrote it -- an amicus brief in support of Judge Cooke and Ben Kuehne on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The next argument dealt with the co-defendant, Gloria Flores-Velez, who was represented by Ricardo Bascuas and Henry Bell. The same DOJ lawyer argued for the government. Remember that Judge Cooke dismissed the case against this defendant based on speedy trial grounds. I will post more about it in a bit, but there was a funny moment when Rick was using the term "parallel market" instead of "black market peso exchange." The court asked what the parallel market was, and Rick said it was what the government referred to as the black market exchange. The court asked why the government used that term and Rick said "for its pejorative effect." And the judges and audience laughed. It was a good moment.

UPDATE -- Here's Curt Anderson's AP article. And here's the DBR by John Pacenti.


Anonymous said...

This whole case is just exasperatingly weird. At least the 11th Circuit is going to address the issue and put it to bed once and for all (or so we hope).

Anonymous said...

Great post David

The Straw Buyer said...

Thanks for filling us in.

Anonymous said...

I argued before the court on Tuesday and they were hot off the bench. Barkett ripped into a DOJ attorney immigration attorney on an asylum case for again taking ridiculous positions.