Monday, October 15, 2018

“Brett Kavanaugh would not have been treated fairly had he been a defendant in federal criminal court”

That’s the title of my latest op-ed in The Hill.  Please check it out.  Here’s the introduction:
Throughout the confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the President and the GOP have trumpeted how important it is for our society to value the presumption of innocence. Many criminal defense lawyers smiled as they heard conservatives champion this principle.

The sad truth, however, is that if Kavanaugh had been criminally charged in federal court, he would not have been treated so fairly.

Our criminal justice system is set up crush defendants, even innocent ones.
Here are two of the points:
Brett Kavanaugh would not be entitled to witness statements or to take depositions. The discovery process in federal criminal court is a joke. Remember those witnesses called before the grand jury? The defense is not entitled to see their statements until the witness testifies at trial. And if one of the grand jury witnesses does not testify at trial, then the defense is not entitled to review that statement. So too with other statements taken by law enforcement. They aren’t discoverable until after the direct examination of the witness at trial.

Forget about taking those witnesses’ depositions. Depositions do not exist in federal criminal trials, which may make you wonder how Kavanaugh would know what the witnesses were going to say. He wouldn’t, and he would find out at the same time the jury heard it.


On appeal, the court of appeals would be required to accept as true the accuser’s claims. If Kavanaugh proceeded to trial and challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, the court of appeals would be obliged to accept the accuser’s claims in the light most favorable to her.

As for the other issues — like disclosure of favorable information or admission of prior bad acts — the appellate court would only reverse if Kavanaugh could show prejudice: that the trial would have ended in a different result absent the mistake.

These standards make it almost impossible to win an appeal after a guilty verdict.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Great FBA event honoring Judge Alan Gold

The Federal Bar Association put on a lovely event last night honoring Judge Gold.  His remarks, as well as George Knox's, were really touching.  Here are some (bad) pictures from the back of the room as Judge Gold began his speech and as Chief Judge Moore swore in the new board of directors:

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Justice Sotomayor pinches Justice Gorsuch during oral argument

For real!  During Brenda Bryn's argument yesterday in Stokeling (concerning what amount of force constitutes a violent felony), the following exchange occurred:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I'm sorry, we used
the example of a tap on the shoulder not being
sufficient force. So can you answer Justice
Alito's hypothetical?
MS. BRYN: Right.
ordinary pinch -- let's not talk about an
extraordinary -(
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: -- pulling of the
ears that a parent might sometimes do. Let's
talk about just a pinch.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Is that sufficient
force? If we said a tap on the shoulder
couldn't be, why could a pinch be?
MS. BRYN: I -- I think the -- the
answer is looking at the -- the other side of
the equation from what a substantial degree of
force is. And Your Honor mentioned force
capable of -- of causing pain or injury. And I
think the only way to read that explanation of
violent force is as force that's -- a degree of
force that's reasonably expected to cause pain
or injury.
BRYN: I don't think a pinch -JUSTICE
SOTOMAYOR: -- you've said the
reasonable -- and I do understand your point,
which is, from personal experience, if you tap
an injured shoulder, it could cause injury.
It's capable of causing physical pain and
But we said, in the normal course of
circumstances, a tap on the shoulder would not
-- is not capable of producing injury. So -MS.
BRYN: Nor would a pinch.
Although you can't see it in the transcript, Sotomayor pinched Gorsuch where the laughter line occurs.  Pretty funny.

Justice Kavanaugh also asked his first questions:

counsel -- counsel, in Curtis Johnson, you rely
heavily on the general statements of the Court,
but the application of those general statements
was to something very specific: Battery and a
mere tap on the shoulder. And all Curtis
Johnson seemed to hold was that that was
So why don't we follow what Curtis
Johnson seemed to do in applying those general
statements to the specific statute at issue
here and why wouldn't that then encompass the
Florida statute, which requires more than, say,
a tap on the shoulder?
MS. BRYN: Because what the Court did
before applying the standard to the statute -to the Florida battery statute was to
definitively construe the words that -
JUSTICE KAVANAUGH: Well, but it -but it's -MS.
BRYN: -- Congress used in the
elements clause.
Go ahead.
JUSTICE KAVANAUGH: But it -- as you
point out, it's -- it's a bit general, those
statements, that language. And so how do we
understand what the Court meant by that? You
look at how it applied it, and it was to a
battery statute, and it was a case where the
government argued that the mere tap on the
shoulder was okay. And the Court said no,
that's not enough. But all it seemed to carve
out was that kind of statute. At least as I
read page 139 of the Curtis Johnson opinion, it
seemed to very carefully distinguish those two

Well, there ya go.

If you're looking for a good event and a chance to mingle with the local judges, please come to the Federal Bar Association's function tomorrow night at the Four Seasons at 5:30.  Tickets here.  The FBA is honoring Judge Alan Gold, one of the District's heroes.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

It's Armed Career Criminal Act day at the Supreme Court

Two criminal cases about the Armed Career Criminal Act greet new Justice Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court this morning. (Our own Brenda Bryn will be arguing one of the cases.) Last night President Trump and Justice Kennedy had the ceremonial swearing in at the White House. All 8 Justices came to support their new "teammate." All of them looked uncomfortable while Trump spoke, except Justice Thomas who "vigorously" clapped throughout.

Looks like the protestors are out this morning before the argument.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

There’s always a Miami connection, even for Justice Kavanaugh’s first SCOTUS argument

Justice Kavanaugh’s first oral argument sitting will be Tuesday. And the first argument is Stokeling v. United States, a case out of the Southern District of Florida. Assistant Federal Defender Brenda Bryn will be arguing for Mr. Stokeling. The issue is:

Whether a state robbery offense that includes “as an element” the common law requirement of overcoming “victim resistance” is categorically a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), when the offense has been specifically interpreted by state appellate courts to require only slight force to overcome resistance.

Rory Little at SCOTUSblog has more:

Questions arising under the Armed Career Criminal Act have plagued the Supreme Court since the statute was enacted in 1984 and amended in 1986. The statute imposes a 15-year mandatory-minimum imprisonment sentence on federal firearms offenders who have three prior “serious” drug or “violent” felony convictions, even if the prior convictions were under state law. But there is a remarkable variety among the 50 states regarding precisely how state criminal statutes are written, and how exactly those statutes are then interpreted by state courts across the nation. On October 9, the court will spend two hours considering three cases (two are consolidated for the second hour) that reveal, once again, the vagaries of the ACCA. It seems likely that the justices will have all three cases (as well as their prior expressions of unhappiness with the ACCA) in mind during the arguments. So the preview in United States v. Stitt and Sims, as well as this one, should be read for a full picture of the justices’ perspectives.

The first case on the October 9 docket is Stokeling v. United States. The question is what state law crimes of “robbery” should count as prior “violent felonies” under the ACCA. Denard Stokeling was convicted of an unarmed robbery in Florida in 1997; then in 2016 he was convicted federally for being a “felon in possession” of a firearm. If Stokeling’s 1997 prior robbery conviction counts as a “violent felony,” then his federal prison sentence in the current case would increase dramatically, from a 10-year maximum to the ACCA’s 15-year minimum.


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in Stokeling’s case that the Florida state robbery crime does categorically meet the ACCA definition. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently ruled to the contrary (in United States v. Geozos, in 2017), finding that only “minimal” force is required under Florida law. Because Florida robbers apparently travel all across the country, the ACCA is invoked wherever they may subsequently commit a federal firearms crime. Certiorari was granted to resolve the circuit split.

At this point, lawyers may recall differing cases and hypotheticals from their 1L Criminal Law class: Does snatching a purse or chain or cash constitute “robbery”? Cases and definitions on this question of “how much force?” are split across the country. The answer is necessary in most states to distinguish simple theft from robbery, which can elevate a misdemeanor to a felony as well as make the difference between probation and prison time. Moreover, the ruling will apply to any other states that define “robbery” as Florida does. Thus the question presented in Stokeling is nationally important, and will affect the administration of the ACCA in federal courts around the country.

For his part, Stokeling points to a number of Florida state-court robbery cases that he says involved “only a slight degree of force.” He argues that the 11th Circuit’s view ignored not only the words but also the definitional spirit of Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2010 Curtis Johnson opinion, in which the “violent” in the ACCA’s “violent felony” was emphasized. He points out that in a subsequent decision (United States v. Castleman, in 2014), the court cited Johnson for the proposition that “the word ‘violent’ … standing alone ‘connotes a substantial degree of force.’” He argues that he should prevail on “a straightforward application of Curtis Johnson.”