Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year from the SDFLA Blog

Best wishes headed into 2019!

It’s been slow going over the break, but the blog will be back in action next week.

Happy new year!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Judge Ungaro rules for BuzzFeed

Details here:
A district court judge ended a two-year battle over the Steele dossier Wednesday, ruling on the side of press freedom and the online news outlet BuzzFeed.

Published in January 2017, the now well-known dossier was a 35-page collection of memos with “unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations” about President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to court filings.

The dossier claimed at one point that Russian Internet entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev’s companies, Webzilla and XBT Holding, played a role aiding the Russian government’s effort to hack documents from Democratic Party officials.

Gubarev filed a lawsuit in February 2017 alleging his reputation had been damaged by false statements included in the dossier. In addition to BuzzFeed, Gubarev sued its author, former British spy Christopher Steele, who had turned the reports over to researchers working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro for the Southern District of Florida held that the dossier dealt with a matter of public concern and reporting the details of an ongoing government investigation was made in the public interest.

“The press acts as the agent of the public, gathering and compiling diffuse information in the public domain. The press also provides the public with the information it needs to exercise oversight of the government and with information concerning the public welfare,” she wrote in the opinion, noting that the “fair report privilege” exists to protect the press in its watchdog efforts.

Roy Black represented BuzzFeed. Here is the order.

In other news, Magistrate Judge Reinhart has this interesting order on pen registers. The intro:

This matter came before the Court on a sealed Application by the Department of Justice,
pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 3122 and 3123, for an order directing a cellular telephone company to
install a pen register and a trap and trace device (collectively "pen-trap devices") on the cellular phone of a person suspected of being involved in violations of the federal money laundering laws ("the Application"). The undersigned rejected the Application because it requested "that the Court order the service provider identified above and any other person or entity whose assistance may facilitate execution of this Order to notify the applicant and the law enforcement agency identified above of any changes relating to the cell phone number, including changes to
subscriber information, and to provide prior notice to the applicant and the law enforcement
agencies identified above before terminating or changing service to the cell phone number." I
write to explain the basis for my finding that the relevant statutes do not authorize the Court to
impose this duty on the cellular telephone company.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Big news on criminal justice reform

The U.S. criminal justice system has been astray for some time now.  Trials are way down (less than 3% of federal cases go to trial, which is absurd).  And incarceration rates are way up.  We lead the world in prison rates in all the bad ways.

There's lots of blame to go around.  From prosecutors, to guidelines, to the trial tax, to judges, to a culture of awfully high sentences.  But the Senate -- on a bipartisan basis -- stepped in today (with a nudge from Trump) and passed what the New York Times is calling the most substantial changes in a generation to federal prison and sentencing laws.  "The First Step Act" is expected to be signed into law shortly.  Some call it "Baby Steps" and it certainly doesn't fix the serious problems in the system.  We still need to stop penalizing defendants after trial and to stop issuing guideline sentences that are not tied to any empirical evidence (like the loss guideline and the drug guideline).  We need prosecutors and probation officers to stop asking for insanely high sentences for everyone except cooperators. And to use some discretion on who and what should be charged. 

Obviously not all prosecutors do this, and there are a lot of well-meaning folks in the system, but there is still a culture of incarceration insanity here and around the country. It needs to change.

The Senate and President Trump should be commended on taking this first, albeit small, step.  Here are some of the changes:
Many of the changes adopted by the Senate and embraced by Mr. Trump are modeled after successful initiatives at the state level intended to reduce the costs and improve the outcomes of the criminal justice system. Congress’s action would not directly affect state prisons, where the majority of the country’s offenders are incarcerated, but proponents believe they could spur more states to change their laws.

Once signed into law, thousands of inmates will be eligible for immediate sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs. Going forward, the effect will grow as thousands of new offenders receive reduced sentences and enter a changed prison system.

Broadly speaking, the First Step Act makes heavy investments in a package of incentives and new programs intended to improve prison conditions and better prepare low-risk prisoners for re-entry into their communities.
By participating in the programs, eligible prisoners can earn time credits to reduce their sentence or enter “prerelease custody,” such as home confinement. In recent weeks, conservative senators and law enforcement groups successfully pushed to limit some violent offenders from eligibility, including fentanyl traffickers.

The legislation would also prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates and the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in almost all cases. The Bureau of Prisons would be required to place prisoners in facilities close to their homes, if possible.

In all, it includes four changes to federal sentencing laws. One would shorten mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, including lowering the mandatory “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years. Another would provide judges greater liberty to use so-called safety valves to go around mandatory minimums in some cases. The bill would also clarify that the so-called stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted.

Finally, the bill would allow offenders sentenced before a 2010 reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to petition for their cases to be re-evaluated. The provision could alter the sentences of several thousand drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses. That would help many African-American offenders who were disproportionately punished for crack dealing while white drug dealers got off easier for selling powder cocaine.

And here's your President:

Monday, December 17, 2018

"[My health] is fine [and] my ribs are almost repaired."

That was Justice Ginsburg over the weekend.  That's good news.  More:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said her ribs are "almost repaired" Saturday after breaking them in a November fall.
Ginsburg reassured a crowd gathered at an event in her honor at the Museum of the City of New York, according to CNN.
"[My health] is fine [and] my ribs are almost repaired," she said.
Ginsburg also said that, as of yesterday, she was able to do her whole workout routine with her personal trainer.
The 85-year-old justice cracked three ribs in a fall at her office on Nov. 7.
However, she was back working in her office and working out just days later.
Ginsburg has not missed a day of oral arguments in her 25 years on the court, despite cracking two ribs in 2012 and surviving two instances of cancer.
After her fall last month, supporters nationwide jokingly offered to donate their ribs to her, highlighting concerns that she may not serve the remaining five years that she promised.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Angela E. Noble named new SDFLA Clerk of Court

The Court's notice is here.

The Judges of the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, announced today the appointment of Angela E. Noble as Court Administrator ∙ Clerk of Court, effective January 1, 2019. The current appointment occurs after a nation-wide search that culminated in her selection among a broad field of diverse and highly qualified applicants.
Ms. Noble has over 18 years of experience with the U.S. Courts, including serving the last three years as Northern Division Operations Manager. She is a graduate of New York Law School and City University of New York, John Jay College. During her tenure with the Southern District, she previously served as Courtroom Deputy to United States District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks. She also practiced law as an Assistant Attorney General with the Criminal Appeals and Capital Collateral Division of the state of Florida’s Office of Attorney General in West Palm Beach, Florida, focusing on felony criminal appeals and collateral matters, including federal habeas corpus petitions and civil rights claims.
Ms. Noble has experience in virtually all areas of the Clerk’s Office, including operations/docketing, the Court’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, and administrative functions. She has served as a trainer and presenter in many Continuing Legal Education sessions and conferences focusing on courtroom technology. Ms. Noble has been a leader in the Operations Department for the Southern District’s Clerk’s Office, and she currently heads the Clerk’s Office’s participation in the District’s tri-agency Leadership Development Program.
The Judges of the Court sincerely appreciate Ms. Noble’s dedication and commitment to the continued success of the Clerk’s Office. They enthusiastically approved the appointment at a regularly scheduled Judges’ Meeting in October, and have expressed their utmost support and confidence in Court Administrator Noble’s abilities to lead the Clerk’s Office over the coming years.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Hackers spoofing 11th Circuit...

Below is the notice from the court. I feel like there’s a joke in there somewhere.

Notice Regarding Spoofed Calls

Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Members of the public have received calls from individuals posing as "agents" working for or with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The callers then ask the recipient to pay a monetary fine. While the recipient's caller ID may show that the call comes from the Clerk's Office main phone number (404-335-6100), these calls are "spoofed" and are not from the Court of Appeals. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals does not call members of the public and ask them to pay a fine over the phone. If you receive one of these calls please hang up and contact the FBI Atlanta Field Office at 770-216-3000.

First steps

Mitch McConnell will bring the First Step Act to a Senate vote.  I like the title because this bill doesn’t give a whole lot of relief, but it’s a nice first step in the right direction for criminal justice reform.  It will pass by a huge number.  From USA Today:

The measure would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for nonviolent crimes, particularly drug offenss, and bolster rehabilitation programs for former prisoners. It would also call for placing federal prisoners closer to home – no more than 500 miles – so families could visit more often.

Trump welcomed McConnell's announcement.

“Looks like it's going to be passing, hopefully – famous last words,'' Trump said at the White House. "It’s really something we're all very proud of. Tremendous support from Republicans and tremendous support from Democrats. Lot of years they've been waiting for it.”

Monday, December 10, 2018

William Barr to be Trump's Attorney General

Out with the old and in with the old.

Although Trump is calling for criminal justice reform and even pushed McConnell on Twitter for a vote on the First Step Act, Barr is an old-school criminal justice thinker.  Here's the Brennan Center for Justice explaining that he is similar (if not worse) than Sessions:
Barr’s record suggests he might also be opposed to the FIRST STEP Act, the current bipartisan bill on criminal justice reform. If passed, the bill would shorten some unnecessarily long federal prison sentences and enforce rules that would improve conditions for people currently in prison. Barr’s potential opposition to the FIRST STEP Act would put him at odds with President Trump and the majority of Republicans in the Senate, who support the bill.
Barr’s previous stint as attorney general also included troubling positions on criminal justice issues. During his tenure in the Bush administration, Barr helped devise federal policies that furthered mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Notably, in 1992, he published a book by the Department of Justice called The Case for More Incarceration, which argued that the country was “incarcerating too few criminals.” After serving as attorney general, Barr led efforts in Virginia to abolish parole in the state, build more prisons, and increase prison sentences by as much as 700 percent.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

“Alexander Acosta is being unfairly criticized for his handling of Epstein’s plea deal”

That’s the title of my op-ed in the Miami Herald this morning.  It starts like this:
Alexander Acosta is arguably President Trump’s most successful cabinet member. For starters, job numbers and unemployment rates are breaking records under his supervision as Labor Secretary. And particularly noteworthy for this administration, Acosta has been scandal free. There have been no Twitter fights (like with Jeff Sessions), no misuse of government funds (like with six other cabinet members), or other similar issues (like with Louise Linton going off on Instagram).Instead, Acosta has done what he has always done — kept his head down, worked hard, and gotten good results.Because of his successes, there had been some whispers that Acosta was being considered, albeit as a long-shot, for Attorney General.Acosta, who has dedicated his life to public service (from the civil rights division to U.S. Attorney to dean of Florida International University School of Law to his current position in the cabinet), would have been an incredible choice.Then last week, the Miami Herald retold the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s plea deal from over 10 years ago, when Secretary Acosta was U.S. Attorney Acosta. Although Epstein was required to plead guilty, register as a sex offender, pay restitution and go to state prison, there are many — including the New York TimesMiami Herald, and others — who are calling for Congress to investigate Acosta and force him out, equating Acosta’s approval of the deal to Epstein’s actions.Although it is fair to have an honest disagreement about the Epstein plea agreement, the attacks on Acosta are not justified. As for the merits of the agreement, it is important to remember that the federal government only prosecutes federal crimes.
I can’t republish the whole thing here, so please click on the link above and let me know your thoughts.  

Read more here:

Read more here:

Monday, December 03, 2018

Federal Courts in SDFLA are closed on Wednesday 12/5

The notice is here.

Big Double Jeopardy case in Supreme Court this week

It’s Gamble v. U.S. and it comes out of the 11th Circuit (a 3-page unpublished opinion!). The issue is whether the Court should overrule the “separate sovereigns” exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The separate sovereign doctrine — that different sovereigns, like the state and the feds could prosecute someone for the same crime — has bothered me for a long time and really makes no sense.

As usual, SCOTUSblog has lots of background and coverage.  Here is some summary of the arguments:

In the Supreme Court, the federal government insists that the separate sovereigns doctrine should remain in place. The text of the double jeopardy clause bars successive prosecution and punishment for the same offense, the government emphasizes, not for the same conduct. And when it uses the term “offence,” the government continues, the double jeopardy clause is referring to the violation of a law. The same conduct can violate two different sovereigns’ laws and constitute two different offenses, which each sovereign can then punish and prosecute separately. If the Framers had wanted the clause to apply more broadly, the government adds, they would have used the term “conduct” or “acts” rather than “offence.”

Gamble offers a very different interpretation of the text, telling the justices that nothing in the text points to any exceptions to the double jeopardy clause. Instead, he stresses, the text of the clause bars prosecution of the “same offence,” without suggesting that two prosecutions for the same offense would be acceptable as long as they are prosecuted by two separate sovereigns. To the contrary, Gamble observes, Congress considered but rejected an exception that would have allowed the federal government to prosecute a defendant even after he’d been convicted for the same offense under state law.

Gamble contends that the separate sovereigns doctrine is also inconsistent with the purpose of the double jeopardy clause. Permitting two consecutive prosecutions for the same conduct on the ground that prosecutions are brought by two different sovereigns, Gamble argues, “hardly serves the deeply rooted principles of finality and fairness the Clause was designed to protect,” particularly when it would still require two trials and could potentially lead to double punishments.

Gamble tells the justices that the principle of adhering to prior decisions – known as stare decisis – should not stand in way of overruling the separate sovereigns doctrine. First, he says, the doctrine “has long been questioned by members of this Court, lower-court jurists, and legal scholars” – including by both Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Clarence Thomas.

There has been lots of media coverage of the case because of what it might mean for a Mueller pardon and for a prosecution of Trump. Here’s the WAPO on the case:

But likely to be watching the proceedings closely will be those concerned about a big-time felon, Republican consultant and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was prosecuted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for tax fraud.

With President Trump keeping alive prospects that he might pardon Manafort, Gamble v. United States might be redubbed Manafort v. Mueller, joked Thomas C. Goldstein, an attorney who regularly argues before the Supreme Court.

The outcome in the case could affect nascent plans by states to prosecute Manafort under their own tax evasion laws — New York, in particular, has expressed interest — should Trump pardon Manafort on his federal convictions.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Witnesses do not belong to one side or the other

I use the current situation with Mueller, Manafort, and Trump as a vehicle to discuss the issue this morning in The Hill:
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the recent revelation that Paul Manafort’s lawyers have been speaking to Donald Trump’s lawyers. Pundits have said breathlessly that such conduct is obstructive and that only mob lawyers engage in such behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth — by itself, there is nothing obstructive about the lawyers speaking with each other and sharing information.
Witnesses do not belong to one side or the other.
Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty and as part of his plea agreement has promised to answer Mueller’s questions truthfully. Mueller did not ask Manafort to keep those questions and answers secret, nor could he make such a request. This situation comes up frequently in federal criminal cases outside of mob cases. In one common scenario, employees who are questioned by federal authorities are often asked by their employers to share information and do so all of the time. There is nothing nefarious or obstructive about this. Several courts have explained that it is improper for a prosecutor to tell a government witness not to talk to the defense.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"Mueller should not get to decide whether Manafort is lying"

That's the title of my latest piece in The Hill.  The intro:
Prosecutors call them cooperating witnesses. The rest of the criminal justice system calls them rats, snitches, chivatos, stool pigeons, informants and sapos, just to name a few of the terms. The federal criminal justice system is built on these witnesses. So long as they tell “the truth,” they receive enormous reductions in their sentences. In some cases, sentences for defendants convicted after trial are 500 percent longer than sentences received by those who plead and cooperate with the government.
So it’s no surprise that trials have dropped from almost 20 percent of all cases in the 1980s to less than 3 percent today (with most all the rest of the cases resolving in a plea).  Like the days of Salem witches, even the innocent are racing to plead guilty and to tell the prosecutors what they want to hear in the hopes of avoiding monstrous sentences.
There are many fundamental problems with such a system. One such issue is demonstrated in the Paul Manafort case, where the prosecution team just filed a status report with the court explaining that they have concluded that Manafort is not fulfilling his end of the plea agreement because, they say, he has lied to them during interviews (or as they are called in the system, debriefings). Manafort has said he has answered all of their questions truthfully. This may or may not be true.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Trump bashes 9th Circuit for reversal rate...

...but you know which Circuit is reversed more often?

That's right, the 11th Circuit. (82% for the 11th vs. 80% for the 9th over the past 5 Terms).

It's all silly, of course. The reversal rate is pretty consistent across the circuits as the Supreme Court generally takes cases to reverse, not to affirm.

And the 9th Circuit is by far the largest Circuit with the most cases, so on a pure number-of-cases basis, it's going to lead the pack.

Justice Roberts joined the fray with this retort about an independent judiciary.

The Washington Post then roasted Trump explaining that judges on both sides of the aisle have been ruling against him, again and again:

[Roberts] could have noted that the number of rulings against his administration’s actions now stands somewhere in the range of about 40 to 50, according to a rough estimate by The Washington Post. Norman Siegel, writing at in January, counted 37 “major” losses, and that was in January, before numerous other rulings that thwarted Trump administration decisions.

And he could have observed that all of this is a bit of a surprise. All presidents lose cases. But a losing streak of this magnitude for a president is a new phenomenon.

Despite the endless decades of rhetoric about “judicial activism,” judges at the district court level are generally a timid lot when it comes to confronting presidents. Historically, they are inclined to do what former federal judge Nancy Gertner calls “duck, avoid and evade.”

“Now,” she wrote in the April issue of NYU Law Review, “I am not so certain. . . . Perhaps ‘judging in a time of Trump’ ” is different, she wrote. “It is one thing to ‘duck, avoid and evade’ when you believe that official actors are acting more or less within constitutional bounds. It is another to do so when you are concerned about real abuse of power.”

It was U.S. District Court Judge Dana M. Sabraw, for example, a California jurist appointed by President George W. Bush, who ripped the administration repeatedly for its family separation debacle.

And how could Trump forget that it was his own appointee, Timothy J. Kelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who slapped down the effort to ban CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House.

One of the toughest dressings-down came from a decision blocking Trump’s “sanctuary cities” crackdown written by Judge Ilana Rovner, appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago. In a decision joined by a Gerald Ford appointee and a Reagan appointee upholding a lower-court ruling by a Reagan appointee, she lit into the Trump administration for assuming powers to withhold money not granted to it by Congress to punish states and cities that didn’t go along with efforts to round up those in the country illegally.

Her message to Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, translated, was basically, who do you think you are?
Our role in this case is not to assess the optimal immigration policies for our country. . . . The founders of our country well understood that the concentration of power threatens individual liberty and established a bulwark against such tyranny by creating a separation of powers among the branches of government. If the Executive Branch can determine policy, and then use the power of the purse to mandate compliance with that policy by the state and local governments, all without the authorization or even acquiescense of elected legislators, the check against tyranny is forsaken.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Gorsuch and Sotomayor channel Justice Scalia

From ScotusBlog:
But one criminal case on which they did act today, involving the Sixth Amendment right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses in a criminal trial, drew a dissent from the unlikely pairing of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor joined Gorsuch’s dissent from the denial of review in Stuart v. Alabama. The defendant in the case, Vanessa Stuart (who has since changed her name to Vanessa American Horse), was charged with driving under the influence and criminally negligent homicide after she rear-ended Tiffany Howell’s car, causing Howell to strike a tree and die.

At Stuart’s trial, prosecutors introduced lab reports as evidence of Stuart’s blood alcohol level. But they did not ask the scientist who signed the lab report to testify. And that omission, Stuart contended, was inconsistent with Bullcoming v. New Mexico, in which the Supreme Court held that introducing a lab report at trial without testimony from the person who prepared the report violates the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, which gives a defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

The justices turned down Stuart today, over a four-page dissent from Gorsuch, who began by noting that because “cross-examination may be the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth, the Constitution promises every person accused of a crime the right to confront his accusers.” “That promise,” Gorsuch continued, “was broken here.”

Gorsuch went on to explain that, although the state court’s errors in Stuart’s case were in his view obvious, they were also understandable, because the Supreme Court’s opinions on the confrontation clause – and in particular a 2012 case in which no rule was able to garner a majority of the votes – “have sown confusion.” He (and Sotomayor) would have granted review to clarify some of the issues surrounding cases like Stuart’s.

In other news, Willie Falcon was deported... but not to Cuba.  He was sent to the DR.  From the Miami Herald:

One of South Florida’s most infamous cocaine cowboys — Willie Falcon — has been deported to the Dominican Republic after his bid to stay in the United States failed following his 20-year prison sentence on a drug-related money-laundering conviction.

Falcon, 62, was deported earlier this month because he was a convicted felon without U.S. citizenship. He had been held in Louisiana since June 2017 by immigration authorities who at first sought to deport him to his native Cuba.

But Falcon, who recently lost his final federal court appeal to block his deportation, won’t be sent to Cuba as he and his Miami family members initially feared, according to federal officials. The Dominican Republic government agreed to accept Falcon as a resident.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Monday news and notes

1.  Donald Trump made a joke about Justice Scalia’s wife being busy. Via USA Today:
Amid introducing the awardees of the nation's highest civilian honor, some online noticed the president seemed to include a joke about Scalia's virility.

Trump welcomed Scalia's wife, Maureen, and their nine children who attended the White House ceremony. After reading the names of each of the nine children, Trump seemed to slip in a joke about the couple's sex life.

"You were very busy. Wow," the president said, causing those in the room to chuckle. "Wow. I always knew I liked him."
2.  Stephen Colbert interviews Justice Sotomayor. Here it is on YouTube.

3.  Trump’s nominee to fill Justice Kavanaugh’s spot on the D.C. Circuit is a defender of dwarf tossing.  From MotherJones:  “Add to that list Neomi Rao, Trump’s nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the powerful DC Circuit, who has written at least two law review articles and a blog post in which she defended dwarf-tossing.”

4.   The Florida Supreme Court says that judges and lawyers can be Facebook friends.  Here’s the article.

Friday, November 16, 2018

D’oh! Cut and paste job goes bad... charges against Assange revealed in unrelated court filing.

The Washington Post has the story, which is every lawyer’s nightmare when they hit the file button on cm/ecf:
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been charged under seal, prosecutors inadvertently revealed in a recently unsealed court filing — a development that could significantly advance the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and have major implications for those who publish government secrets.
The disclosure came in a filing in a case unrelated to Assange. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer, urging a judge to keep the matter sealed, wrote that “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” Later, Dwyer wrote the charges would “need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested.”
Dwyer is also assigned to the WikiLeaks case. People familiar with the matter said what Dwyer was disclosing was true, but unintentional.
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, said, “The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Miami AUSA opens in El Chapo case

It’s AUSA Adam Fels for the prosecution.  He opened this way: “Money, drugs, murder and a vast global narcotics trafficking organization — that is what this case is about, and that is what the evidence in this case will prove.”  More from the NY Post:

Opening statements finally began Tuesday in the trial for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — with prosecutors describing some of the notorious accused drug lord’s most heinous acts for jurors, along with his weapons of choice.

“Some of his favorites include a diamond-encrusted handgun with his initials on it and a gold-plated AK-47,” said federal prosecutor Adam Fels.

He recounted how Guzman allegedly ordered hits on his own loved ones and used a small private army — consisting of hundreds of men “armed with assault rifles” — to take out his rivals.

For the defense:

Guzman’s defense team, meanwhile, claimed during its opening statements that prosecutors were trying to use him as a “scapegoat.”

“There’s another side to this story, an uglier side,” said attorney Jeffrey Lichtman. “This is a case that will require you to throw out much of what you were taught.”

According to Lichtman, the real criminal mastermind is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada — current leader of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. The lawyer described the 70-year-old former poppy-field worker as “the biggest drug trafficker in Mexico.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Chuck Grassley and George Will (and lots of other GOPers) think we need sentencing reform

Here’s The NY Times on Grassley’s push for federal sentencing reform, which now has a real shot of passing:
A bipartisan group of senators has reached a deal on the most substantial rewrite of the nation’s sentencing and prison laws in a generation, giving judges more latitude to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences and easing drug sentences that have incarcerated African-Americans at much higher rates than white offenders.

The lawmakers believe they can get the measure to President Trump during the final weeks of the year, if the president embraces it.

The compromise would eliminate the so-called stacking regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense; expand the “drug safety valve” allowing judges to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders; and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, according to draft text of the bill obtained by The New York Times.
George Will has this piece, which addresses a state sentence of life for a juvenile:
Parents who have raised sons understand that civilization’s primary task is to civilize adolescent males, a task that is difficult for many reasons, some of which neuroscience explains. The part of the brain that stimulates anger and aggression is larger in males than in females (for evolutionary, meaning adaptive, reasons). And the part that restrains anger is smaller in males. The Supreme Court has noted that adolescent brain anatomy can cause “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” thereby diminishing “moral culpability” and, more important, enhancing “the prospect that, as the years go by,” offenders’ “deficiencies will be reformed.” Hence “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ ”
Judges are supposed to be a check on the executive branch. I really don’t understand why sentences aren’t much lower. So many judges have become accustomed to just following the prosecutor/probation officer/sentencing guidelines, that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. It’s absurd. It will be interesting to see how the new crop of Trump judges sentence defendants, especially non-violent first time offenders.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Will Alex Acosta be named Attorney General?

Marc Caputo floats the idea here:

WHAT ABOUT ACOSTA? — It’s well-known that President Donald Trump prizes loyalty and loves guys with Harvard degrees. By those standards, Alex Acosta fits the bill for attorney general. Acosta has also already survived Senate confirmation, too, and serves as Trump’s only Hispanic secretary, for labor. A son of Cuban exiles, Acosta has prosecutorial experience, having served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida before becoming dean of Florida International University. One possible blemish on Acosta’s record: His decision to give accused pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein what many saw as a sweetheart deal.

Acosta would be a fantastic choice.

Also listed in the short list is Pam Bondi.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Election impact on SDFLA

With the Republicans picking up seats in the Senate and Rick Scott flipping Florida to a two-GOP Senate state, it will be that much easier for Trump to push his judiciary picks.  The three pending district court judges should be confirmed shortly.  And it will be interesting to see how quickly those two open seats get nominees.

Florida amended its constitution to allow for restoration of felon voting rights.  Republicans aren't happy about that one and are promising litigation. But that will likely be in state court. 

Two House seats in the SDFLA flipped blue (Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell).  Barzee-Flores couldn't flip the third seat though.

In non-election news, here's a federal judge who allowed jury nullification arguments in a child porn prosecution:
"This is a shocking case. This is a case that calls for jury nullification."
Many have had similar reactions when confronting cases involving authorities running roughshod over people with bad laws, punitive sentences, and ill-considered prosecutions. But this time, the person invoking jury nullification was a federal judge—District Judge Stefan R. Underhill of the District of Connecticut—and he spoke in court about a case over which he presided.
The prosecution that shocked Underhill involves Yehudi Manzano, a 30-something man charged with producing and transporting child pornography after saving, and then deleting, a video of his teenage sex partner to and from his own phone and its associated Google cloud account. "The only people who ever saw it were the guy who made it, the girl who was in it, and the federal agents," Norman Pattis, Manzano's attorney, told me.
But that, prosecutors say in the indictment, was enough for the federal government to proceed with charges under the assumption that Manzano acted "knowing and having reason to know that: such visual depiction would be transported and transmitted using any means and facility of interstate and foreign commerce." And that's important, because the mandatory minimum sentence under federal law for recording video of sex with an underage partner is 15 years.
That draconian sentence—independent of what was in store in the entirely separate state trial for sex with a minor—was too much for Judge Underhill. "I am absolutely stunned that this case, with a 15-year mandatory minimum, has been brought by the government," he said in court. "I am going to be allowed no discretion at sentencing to consider the seriousness of this conduct, and it is extremely unfortunate that the power of the government has been used in this way, to what end I'm not sure."
Judge Underhill acknowledged that he's not allowed to encourage jury nullification, but "if evidence comes in about the length of the sentence, or if Mr. Pattis chooses to argue, I do not feel I can preclude that. I don't feel I'm required to preclude that. And I think justice requires that I permit that."
The judge's appeal to jury nullification as a remedy for runaway prosecution didn't come out of the blue. Defense counsel and prosecutors had already sparred over the case's rather tenuous connection to interstate commerce, by which the federal government claimed jurisdiction.
"Apparently, the mere fact that the recording equipment was manufactured outside Connecticut is sufficient to meet the interstate commerce requirement of the statute," Judge Underhill noted in surprise. They also tussled over the extent to which jurors should be informed of the long years in prison that awaited Manzano upon conviction.
"Juries exist for a reason," Pattis argued in court. "They stand between the government and the accused, and they provide the accused with an opportunity to hold the government to its burden of proof. And in certain trials in our history, juries have done more than that. They've said the law is wrong, and we, the people, say it's wrong."
In response to that, Neeraj N. Patel bluntly told the court on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's office, "you should take steps to prevent jury nullification and not inform the jury of the sentencing consequences."
I'm not sure why the judge did not just Rule 29 the case after the government rested.  There's no appeal and it's a way for the judiciary to check the executive on absurd prosecutions.

Monday, November 05, 2018

El Chapo trial expected to last 4 months

So absurd.

No trial should last that long.

It's not fair to the jurors.

If the prosecutors can't prove that case in 2-3 weeks, then something is wrong.

Here's Reuters with the background:
U.S. prosecutors say that as the head of the Sinaloa Cartel since 2003, Guzman directed the movement of multi-ton shipments of drugs including heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine across borders and into the United States. If convicted, Guzman faces life in prison.

According to court filings, prosecution witnesses will include former Sinaloa Cartel members and others involved in the drug trade who are now cooperating with the U.S. government. Prosecutors have so far avoided naming the witnesses, saying that doing so would put them in danger. Some are expected to testify under aliases.

Although the charges in the case all relate to drug trafficking, prosecutors are also expected to introduce evidence that Guzman was involved in multiple murder plots in the course of his career, including in wars with rival cartels.

Guzman’s lawyers have so far given few hints about their planned defense. Eduardo Balarezo, one of the lawyers, said in a court filing that he will seek to prove that Guzman was merely a “lieutenant,” acting at the direction of others.

For a local case in the news, the WSJ covers the Andres Arias extradition appeal here. (Disclosure: I am handling that appeal with Professor Ricardo Bascuas). The title of the piece is: Will the U.S. Extradite an Innocent Man?
If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t get involved, an innocent man with young children could end up serving a 17-year sentence in a Colombian prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Forget that murderers in Colombia don’t get 17 years. Forget too that the Arias criminal case was heard only by a politicized Colombian Supreme Court with no chance for appeal—a violation of international human-rights law.

The crux of this matter rests on whether Washington has an extradition treaty with Bogotá. The countries signed one in 1979 but, as the Colombian Supreme Court has said, Colombia never ratified it.

President Santos refused to extradite multiple suspects wanted by the U.S., citing the lack of a treaty. One was Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled, who Colombia captured in 2011 but sent to Venezuela where his secrets would be kept. Mr. Santos said he had no choice but “to comply with the Constitution and with the laws,” adding “we have an extradition agreement with Venezuela, not with the United States.”

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe also has stated, in a sworn affidavit presented in court, that there’s no treaty. Colombia uses domestic law to send suspects to the U.S.

In a motion for a stay of extradition pending appeal filed Tuesday in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Mr. Arias’s lawyers argued the point again. “The legality of the order sought to be stayed depends on whether a Treaty that Colombia insists it never ratified and never observes is in force. The Treaty itself states” in article 21(1) “that it is ‘subject to ratification.’ ”

Thursday, November 01, 2018

U.S. v. Bruce Wayne [Harrison]

You thought you knew who Bruce Wayne was.  But you were wrong.

He also goes by: Hopper, Grasshopper, and ...

... of course ...

Loose Bruce.

Don’t tell me that this blog never gave you important information.

(And shame on you clerks for Marcus, Pryor, and Rosenbaum, for not including any Batman references).

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Trevor Noah from the Daily Show visits Miami Beach

He’s here all week.  Good stuff.  He explains how the news has followed him here to Miami with the bomb case (clip from YouTube here). Here are some other clips from last night including Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber presenting Noah with the key to the city:

Here’s the intro to the show:

Monday, October 29, 2018

SDFLA peeps in the news

1. Cesar Sayoc will make his initial appearance today in magistrate court in the Southern District of Florida. The rumor mill says that Jaime Benjamin has been hired to represent him, at least for the SDFLA proceedings. He will certainly be held no bond and will be transferred to the SDNY for further proceedings.

2. Two (really great) former assistant federal defenders in Miami, now FPDs in San Diego, have been named judges. Linda Lopez has been appointed as a magistrate judge in the Southern District of California. And Shereen Charlick (the acting FPD in San Diego) has been appointed to a San Diego County Superior Court judgeship.

3. Jon Sale has been named to the Practitioners Advisory Group for the Sentencing Commission. He is the only member representing the 11th Circuit and will serve a 3-year term. It is a very prestigious position.

4. AUSA Jonathan Colan and AFPD Andy Adler just battled it out in the en banc 11th Circuit in U.S. v. Johnson on whether a police officer was entitled to seized ammunition and a holster from Johnson's pocked after he felt something during a Terry frisk. Here's the OA.  It was Britt Grant's first en banc argument.  The Court now has 12 active members.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Slow blogging.

Sorry for the very slow blogging lately. I’ve been traveling and under water at work. Please send tips if you have them and I will post. Also, please let me know if you want to guest post about the SDFLA.

Meantime, an arrest has been made in this District (it’s always this District!) in connection with the bombs being sent all over the place. His name is Cesar Sayok. AG Sessions will be having a press conference shortly (2:30 EST) to discuss the developments. He will likely be represented by the Federal Public Defender’s office at his initial appearance. It’s not clear where he will be indicted but rumor is that it won’t be here in South Florida. More to come.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

“Almost nobody knows that James Madison wrote the Constitution, they all think it was Thomas Jefferson … and he was in France!”

That was Justice Gorsuch speaking on the public's lack of knowledge about government and the judiciary. SCOTUSblog has more:
The justice noted that even law clerks who come to his office fail to recognize a portrait of Madison hanging above a fireplace.

Gorsuch spoke passionately about the benefits and importance of an independent judiciary. He said, “as difficult as our times sometimes seem, we are very blessed.” He asked rhetorically, “how many places in the world can you go where you can rest assured that you can have an independent judge decide your case?” Gorsuch singled out North Korea for having an expansive bill of rights that promises its citizens a right to free education, free medical and relaxation. He joked that he would enjoy a right to relaxation, but he argued that those North Korean rights are “not worth the parchment they’re written on because you don’t have judges to enforce them.”

Gorsuch then moved on to the second concern he has noticed during his time as a judge. He listed civility, human decency and kindness as “under assault in our society right now, and in our profession.” He criticized civil litigation specifically for its lack of civility and expressed concerns about civility becoming a bad word or passé. He wrapped up his point by stressing to the audience that people they may disagree with “love this country as much as you do.”

Just last week, Chief Justice Roberts said it wasn't the Court's job to educate the public. But perhaps opening up the Court to cameras would help with Justice Gorsuch's concerns and not at all detract from the Court's role.

Monday, October 22, 2018

11th Circuit affirms conviction where portion of trial occurred without the defendant and her lawyer

The case is U.S. v. Lourdes Garcia. It is the follow up to U.S. v. Roy, where the trial proceeded without the defendant present and was affirmed by the en banc 11th Circuit. Both cases involve the same district judge. Here’s how Garcia starts out, by Judge Marcus:

This is a troubling case. There can be no doubt -- and the government does not contest the point -- that constitutional error occurred. It is also clear that the error was plain and obvious. The decision to allow the government to introduce inculpatory evidence while both the defendant and her lawyer were absent for three to ten minutes in a trial that lasted more than 49 hours violated the defendant’s right to counsel, her right to confront the witnesses arrayed against her, and her right to be present at trial under both the Due Process Clause and Fed. R. Crim. P. 43. The only question is whether Garcia’s convictions should be reversed on account of the error.
We hold that Garcia’s convictions must be affirmed because the errors did not affect Garcia’s substantial rights. There can be no question that Garcia failed to preserve the errors at trial even though she had ample opportunity to do so. She was given every chance to object and to secure some remedial relief from the trial court but expressly declined to act. As a consequence, under well-established law we must review the constitutional violations that occurred for plain error, not for harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. What’s more, there is good reason in this case to be punctilious in selecting the proper standard of review. The prejudice analysis is by no means clear-cut and the standard by which we measure it could well make all the difference.

Even though the defendant didn’t object, this is an absurd result. The problem started in Roy where the en banc court found that this wasn’t a structural issue. Hopefully the Supremes take a look.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rodney Smith appears before Senate committee today

Judge Rodney Smith had his committee hearing today before the Senate.  According to CNN:
The committee considered the nominations of Allison Jones Rushing to become a US Circuit Judge for the Fourth Circuit, Thomas P. Barber and Wendy Williams Berger to become US District Judges for the Middle District of Florida, Corey Landon Maze to become US District Judge for the Northern District of Alabama, Rodney Smith to become US District Judge for the Southern District of Florida and T. Kent Wetherell II to become US District Judge for the Northern District of Florida.

Our other two nominees, Rudy Ruiz and Roy Altman, came out of committee a few months ago and are waiting for their final vote.

"We do not speak for the people; we speak for the Constitution."

That was Chief Justice Roberts last night at the University of Minnesota.  The Star Tribune has the details:
Roberts' advice to lawyers who submit briefs to the court: Keep it short. When he gets a brief shorter than the 50-page limit, Roberts joked that he'll pause, look to see who the lawyer is and say to himself, "Whoa, I like her." Shorter briefs also tend to be better written and focused.
When lawyers come for oral arguments, he urged dispassion: Don't push back against hypotheticals from the justices. That way, he said, the lawyers and justices can figure out the issues together.
Stein asked Roberts why he put a Bob Dylan quote in an opinion: "Was it just to make the opinion more interesting?"
Roberts said, no, but it was to make a point understandable for those who aren't lawyers. The line: "When you have nothing, you've got nothing to lose." He was explaining that to file a lawsuit against someone, you must have something at stake in the fight.
Stein asked Roberts if he heard from Dylan, but the chief justice said no. Roberts, however, did get into a dispute with the New York Times over his polishing the line from Dylan's singing, "When you ain't got nothing."
The audience, packed with dignitaries including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale and the entire state Supreme Court, was warm to Roberts. During the question-and-answer session from college students, he faced inquiries about how he stayed motivated in law school, what he thought of the Socratic method and "what is race?"

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.”

Friday, October 05, 2018

Friday news and notes

1. Justice Stevens says NO to Kavanaugh. From the Palm Beach Post:

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on Thursday said that high court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who Stevens once lauded in one of his books, does not belong on the Supreme Court.

Speaking to a crowd of retirees in Boca Raton, Stevens, 98, said Kavanaugh’s performance during a recent Senate confirmation hearing suggested that he lacks the temperament for the job.

Stevens, a lifelong Republican who is known for falling on the liberal side of several judicial rulings, praised Kavanaugh and one of his rulings on a political contribution case in the 2014 book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”

“At that time, I thought (Kavanaugh) had the qualifications for the Supreme Court should he be selected,” Stevens said. “I’ve changed my views for reasons that have no relationship to his intellectual ability … I feel his performance in the hearings ultimately changed my mind.”

2. In the WSJ, Kavanaugh says, but I was just emotional at the hearings. I won't be like that as a judge:
I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been. I might have been too emotional at times. I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said. I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad. I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters.

Going forward, you can count on me to be the same kind of judge and person I have been for my entire 28-year legal career: hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good. As a judge, I have always treated colleagues and litigants with the utmost respect. I have been known for my courtesy on and off the bench. I have not changed. I will continue to be the same kind of judge I have been for the last 12 years. And I will continue to contribute to our country as a coach, volunteer, and teacher. Every day I will try to be the best husband, dad, and friend I can be. I will remain optimistic, on the sunrise side of the mountain. I will continue to see the day that is coming, not the day that is gone.

I revere the Constitution. I believe that an independent and impartial judiciary is essential to our constitutional republic. If confirmed by the Senate to serve on the Supreme Court, I will keep an open mind in every case and always strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States and the American rule of law.

3. Meantime, the 11th Circuit had 153 pages of en banc-ness yesterday in another Johnson follow up case, called Ovalles. One of our newer judges, Newsom, wrote the majority opinion. (Strangely it doesn't say who joined the opinion). Bill Pryor wrote a concurrence (joined by Ed Carnes, Tjoflat, Newsom, and Branch). Martin wrote a dissent. Jill Pryor wrote a dissent (in which Wilson, Martin, and Jordan joined).

Newsom's opinion explains:
The question before us is whether one of the key provisions of an important federal criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), is unconstitutionally vague. As relevant to our purposes, § 924(c) makes it a federal offense—punishable by a term of imprisonment ranging from five years to life—for any person to use, carry, or possess a firearm in connection with a “crime of violence.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). The provision challenged here—§ 924(c)(3)’s “residual clause”—defines the term “crime of violence” to mean a felony “that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” Id. § 924(c)(3)(B).
The obvious (and decisive) question, then: Which is it here—categorical or conduct-based? Because we find ourselves at this fork in the interpretive road—the categorical approach imperiling § 924(c)(3)’s residual clause, a conduct-based reading saving it—we invoke the canon of “constitutional doubt.” Pursuant to that “elementary rule,” the Supreme Court has long held, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895). The pivotal issue, therefore, is not whether § 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is necessarily, or even best, read to incorporate a conduct-based interpretation—but simply whether it can “reasonabl[y],” see id., “plausibl[y],” Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371, 381 (2005), or “fairly possibl[y],” I.N.S. v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 300 (2001), be so understood. Joining the Second Circuit, which recently came to the same conclusion, see United States v. Barrett, __ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 4288566 (2d Cir. Sept. 10, 2018), we find that § 924(c)(3)(B) can be read to embody the conduct-based approach—and therefore, under the constitutional-doubt canon, that it must be.
Accordingly, we hold that § 924(c)(3)(B) prescribes a conduct-based approach, pursuant to which the crime-of-violence determination should be made by reference to the actual facts and circumstances underlying a defendant’s offense. To the extent that our earlier decision in United States v. McGuire, 706 F.3d 1333 (11th Cir. 2013), holds otherwise, it is overruled.

Pryor's concurrence starts out this way:
How did we ever reach the point where this Court, sitting en banc, must debate whether a carjacking in which an assailant struck a 13-year-old girl in the mouth with a baseball bat and a cohort fired an AK-47 at her family is a crime of violence? It’s nuts. And Congress needs to act to end this ongoing judicial charade.


As United States Circuit Judges, we have been given great power and privilege. And our positions call upon us to decide the fate of many people who have neither. In a nation that incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than almost all others, federal judges devote much time to examining (and reexamining) the sentences imposed on people serving time in our federal and state prisons. The interpretation the majority of this en banc Court gives to the sentencing statute at issue here, which gives no relief for Irma Ovalles, presents the opportunity to review the development of this Circuit’s sentencing jurisprudence in recent years. My review reveals a body of law that has relentlessly limited the ability of the incarcerated to have their sentences reviewed. Decisions of this Court have left only a narrow path to relief for those serving sentences longer than the law now allows. Yet this narrow path is not mandated by decisions of the Supreme Court or by Acts of Congress. Indeed, this Court has withheld relief from prisoners even when precedent counsels otherwise.

This paragraph struck me:
My final observation about the majority’s en banc ruling against Ms. Ovalles is to note that the majority opinion makes much of the fact that the government has asked us to abandon the categorical approach in interpreting § 924(c)(3)(B). See Maj. Op. at 29–30. Judge Jill Pryor’s dissent explains why this consideration should not factor into our analysis of the statute at issue. Jill Pryor Dissent at 144–45. I would add that, when deciding whether Johnson was retroactive, we paid no heed to the government’s concession that it was. See supra at 1–2. If we are going to defer to the government’s view, we should do so whether it advocates for or against relief for the prisoner.

And finally, here's Jill Pryor:

This case—with all its textual analysis, discussion of canons of statutory construction, and parsing of precedent—may come across like a purely academic exercise. In reality, it is anything but. People who are serving sentences of five years to life under § 924(c) will get no relief from this Court even though the Supreme Court held that an identically-worded statute was so vague that its enforcement violated the right to due process under law. For the reasons I explain in more detail below, I respectfully dissent.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

BREAKING — Two New Magistrate Judges

They are

Jacqueline Becerra
Lisette Reid


So you want to be a Magistrate Judge

The Southern District of Florida will be holding its judges' meeting today in West Palm Beach. There it will interview the 6 candidates for Magistrate Judge and select two. A reminder that those six are:

Jacqueline Becerra
Sowmya Bharathi
Steven Petri
Lisette Reid
Alex Soto
Erica Zaron

Good luck to all!

Monday, October 01, 2018

BREAKING -- Magistrate Judge list cut to 6

The Magistrate Judge Selection Committee interviewed 15 candidates today and narrowed the list to 6. The district judges have their meeting this week and will select two from the following:

Jacqueline Becerra
Sowmya Bharathi
Steven Petri
Lisette Reid
Alex Soto
Erica Zaron

Congratulations to all six.

First Monday in October

Welcome Back!

It’s the First Monday in October but we only have 8 Justices.  That may change by Friday or we may be starting a new confirmation process.  Too hard to predict with so much happening.

The first case that was heard today dealt with endangered frogs, and two Justices decided to make “drain the swamp” references.  Here’s The NY Times coverage of the argument:

There was no empty chair to mark the absence of a ninth justice, and no mention of the confirmation fight. Instead, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. started the session with a nod toward continuity, noting that it was the 25th anniversary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s investiture. “We all look forward to sharing many more years with you in our common calling,” the chief justice said.

Justice Ginsburg, who is 85, smiled and nodded.

Soon afterward, the eight justices turned their attention to the fate of the dusky gopher frog. They discussed draining the swamp, but not as a figure of speech.

The species is in danger of extinction, and the only known remaining frogs live in the De Soto National Forest in Mississippi. In 2012, the federal government came up with a backup plan, designating private land in Louisiana as “critical habitat” for the frogs’ survival. None of the frogs live there now, and the designation could limit the ability of the owners to develop the land, by one account potentially costing them about $33 million.

While we wait for a full Court, here’s your moment of zen from SNL:

Friday, September 28, 2018

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed if we don’t know who is telling the truth?

That’s the title of the final installment of my trilogy in The Hill on the Kavanaugh hearings.

From the intro:
After Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, there seemed to be a consensus — including even Republicans — that Ford was credible and that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation was in serious trouble.

She was respectful, soft-spoken, calm, and tried to be helpful. She did not interrupt anyone and did not argue with the Senators. Republicans were hoping that she would come off as unsure, politically driven, or even unstable. She came across just the opposite. She was “100 percent sure” it was Kavanaugh, she never mentioned politics, and she came across as likable. President Trump was reportedly upset that Republicans were caught flat-footed by just how credible Ford was.

Then came Kavanaugh. He strode in holding his wife’s hand. She and his mother sat behind him as he began his opening remarks. His demeanor was the opposite of Ford’s — angry, indignant, and emotional. He interrupted the Senators and argued with them. Although very different than Ford, his demeanor was also effective and seemed to reinvigorate his supporters, who during the lunch break had been feeling defeated. He forcefully said again and again that he was 100 percent innocent. Energized Republicans took over the questioning from the prosecutor they had planned to let run the proceeding. The nomination, on life support after Ford’s testimony, seemed to be very much alive.

But what now? It seems we are in no better spot than when we started Thursday morning in terms of figuring out what happened 36 years ago: Those who believed Ford still believed Ford, and those who believed Kavanaugh still believed him.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

“Five simple rules for judging Kavanaugh and his accusers“

That’s the title of my latest article in The Hill.  Most of it is an explanation of how Senators who haven’t made up their minds (are there any left?) should use the pattern jury instructions on credibility of witnesses as a guide when listening to the witnesses on Thursday.  Here’s the intro:
The news cycle on the pending Brett Kavanaugh nomination is minute to minute. Despite the many moving parts, Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the accusations even as they continue to come in. Although some Senators have locked themselves into a position of either believing Kavanaugh or of believing his accusers, there are still some who want to see how the hearing plays out. For those open-minded Senators and for those of you who haven't made up your mind yet, below are five simple guidelines to help you judge the credibility of the witnesses who testify.  
Here is one of the questions:
Did the witness have the opportunity and ability to accurately observe the things he or she testified about?  Here, Republicans will question Ramirez about how much she had to drink and whether she can accurately say what really happened. As for Ford, Republicans will also question her about how much she had to drink at the party where she admits that everyone had at least one beer. Regarding Kavanaugh, there are reports that he was a heavy drinker in high school and college, and Ford says that he was "stumbling drunk" at the party.  Democrats are sure to question him about these claims.