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.