The SDFLA Blog is dedicated to providing news and notes regarding federal practice in the Southern District of Florida. The New Times calls the blog "the definitive source on South Florida's federal court system." All tips on court happenings are welcome and will remain anonymous. Please email David Markus at firstname.lastname@example.org
We haven't had a new one since the red 2018 version because we haven't had enough Sentencing Commissioners. Now we have the blue cover with yellow lettering. The sole Commissioner, Charles Breyer, wrote a letter explaining what's up:
"As many of you know, since early 2019, the United States Sentencing Commission has been operating without the quorum of four voting members required by statute to promulgate amendments to the sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and commentary...
The Commission has received feedback indicating that hard copies of the 2018 Guidelines Manual are significantly worn and that there is a limited supply of new copies available. In addition, the Commission has identified the need to update Appendix B, the accompanying volume to the Guidelines Manual that compiles the principal statutory provisions governing sentencing, the Commission, and the drafting of sentencing guidelines. Congress has amended several of the statutory provisions contained in Appendix B since the Commission released the 2018 Guidelines Manual.
As acting chair of the Commission, I am pleased to transmit this edition of the Guidelines Manual..."
You can listen to Judge Breyer discuss sentencing and other issues on my podcast here.
The annual White Collar Conference is back on after the COVID pause. It's being held at the Miami Hyatt. Typically 1,500 lawyers descend in Miami and try to fit in at all of the clubs on Brickell and Miami Beach. This year, though, only about 500 lawyers are here.
In addition to COVID-anxiety, many have speculated that attendance isn't at normal levels because of the ABA fight with the Florida Supreme Court over CLE credits. Florida Bulldog covers it here:
The Florida Supreme Court seems to be buffing its ultra-rightist image by picking a fight about diversity with Florida Bar leaders and the American Bar Association.
Propelling it all is a controversial 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlaws “reverse discrimination,” Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Florida’s high court is resurrecting Bakke to suggest that a diversity policy is really an unfair quota intended to displace white men in favor of women and minorities.
Traditionally the court wields its power over the Florida Bar only after weighing all sides of an issue. It takes in facts and opinions from the legal community, then makes or changes rules for everything from lawyer discipline to divorce procedures.
Not this time. The subject is Continuing Legal Education (CLE), the tightly regulated system that licensed lawyers use to keep up with developments in their practice areas.
In an unusual move, the justices accepted no input before rejecting a pro-diversity policy for CLEs that was recently adopted by the Bar’s Business Law Section, copying a 2017 ABA guideline. Both set numerical goals for CLE faculties so they represent all races, genders, ethnicities and viewpoints.
“We don’t exclude anybody from participating in the panels,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo has explained. “What we do, where necessary, is to expand the size of the panel to include nontraditional voices.”
Although no white male Florida lawyers had reason to complain about getting kicked off Continuing Legal Education panels, the Florida Supreme Court decided to strike down the diversity policy on its own. Not a single self-identified injured party presented a “case or controversy,” the standard trigger for litigation. Court: ‘Quotas’ taint Continuing Legal Education
The court’s April 15 ruling prevents Florida lawyers from earning CLE credits for ABA courses. According to a majority of the justices, the courses are corrupted by “quotas” just like Business Law Section courses would have been under the rejected policy.
“It is essential that The Florida Bar withhold its approval from continuing legal education programs that are tainted by such discrimination,” the court declared in its unsigned opinion.
This is crazy. The Sentencing Commission released a sentencing tool called JSIN so that judges can see average sentences before making a decision. The problem -- the statistics exclude all sentences in which the judge did not impose incarceration. Michael Yeager discusses the flawed data in this article at Law360:
First, JSIN excludes all sentences for cooperating witnesses, meaning
cases in which the government filed and the court granted a Section
5K1.1 motion for a substantial assistance departure....
Second, JSIN includes mandatory minimum sentences, which by
definition are not examples of how judges have exercised discretion. In
fact, they're the opposite....
Third, and most important, JSIN excludes all nonimprisonment
sentences: not just nonimprisonment sentences due to a Section 5K1.1
motion, or application of Section 5K3.1's safety valve, but rather all
nonimprisonment. That is, all sentences that are probation only, fine
only, alternative confinement only (such as home confinement) or any
combination of those options that doesn't also include prison time.
At positions on the sentencing table where the range is zero to six
months, that means that JSIN is excluding sentences within the advisory
range. And even at many higher positions on the sentencing table, a
substantial portion of cases are nonimprisonment. Yet, JSIN excludes
all of them from its averages and medians.
The effect of these choices can be dramatic. When JSIN is queried for
stats on the position of the sentencing table for U.S. Sentencing
Commission Section 2T1.1 — tax evasion, offense level 17 and criminal
history I — JSIN reports the median sentence as 18 months. But when one
uses the commission's full dataset to calculate the median on that same
cohort (Section 2T1.1, level 17, history I, no 5K1.1) and includes
sentences of probation, the median is significantly lower. Instead of
JSIN's 18 months, the median is just 12 months. That's a whole six
months lower — and a 33% decrease....
[B]y conducting a more complete study of the Sentencing Commission's
data than the JSIN provides, the defense could also examine particular
aspects of a guidelines calculation, such as loss or drug weight. The
defense could strip out mandatory minimum sentences or do an analysis of
10 or 15 years of cases, not just five. They could also break down
cases by circuit or district, not just nationally. Now that JSIN is
available, defense attorneys should consider all the above. It was
already a good idea to use accurate and complete data analysis of
similarly situated defendants. But now the need has increased. The
defense now has to counter JSIN and the false impression it creates.
The Supreme Court has a new argument format, as detailed in this Court guide to oral advocates on page 7. Jonathan Adler explains it here:
The Supreme Court has been utilizing a new oral argument format this term. Audio of the arguments is streamed live through the Court's website. Advocates get a brief opportunity to introduce and frame their case, followed by a period of open questioning, followed by an opportunity for each justice, in order of seniority, to ask additional questions they may have. ... The new format seems to result in longer arguments, but also more probative ones, and live audio is great.
One interesting development with the new format is that Justice Thomas has asked the first question in the vast majority of arguments thus far. Indeed, as of yesterday, Justice Thomas had asked the first question to all but one of the advocates so far this term. This is a positive development, as Justice Thomas' questions are good ones.
That last part about Justice Thomas now asking questions has been really interesting. Many have said that he really enjoyed asking questions during the telephonic arguments where questioning would go in order of seniority. And because he liked it, he likes to get his questions in first after the advocates finish their brief introduction.
Justice Sotomayor explained that the format of questioning changed because the female Justices were getting interrupted more often than their male counterparts.
More broadly, however, I feel compelled to address the prosecution’s conduct and the tactics it employed throughout the trial. The prosecution fell short of the high level of professionalism that we expect prosecutors to embody, even if their actions did not rise to the level of misconduct. An unfortunate but notable feature of this trial was that the district court exerted considerable time and energy corralling the prosecution’s often wayward tactics. Starting in voir dire and continuing through the testimony of multiple witnesses, the prosecution frequently appeared to ignore the court’s rulings when it disagreed with them, eliciting remarks from the court including:
• “Counsel, you know that’s improper.” • “[W]hy would you go there?” • “We went over this. . . . I may be wrong, but I ruled. Let’s go.” • “We’ve had this conversation through other witnesses. Counsel, move on.” • “We did this yesterday. I’m not revisiting. Anybody [who] wants to go back to the transcript, can.” • “I don’t know . . . how many other languages to speak to you. . . . I said how to proceed. Proceed that way.” • “What you have to do is to remember we have had some rules in this trial and somehow they seem to have been forgotten.”
The court’s admonitions, it seems, had little effect. After a particularly volatile exchange between a prosecutor and defense witness Miller, in which the prosecutor admitted that he lost his composure, the district court warned that he was “close” to causing a mistrial. Afterward, outside the presence of the jury, she admonished the prosecutor, telling him: “You’re better than having to go to the lowest part of your anger in order to examine this witness. . . . [Y]ou’re an experienced cross-examiner. You didn’t have to do that. I would have expected that of someone of less experience than you.” The district court lamented that things “got very messy and uncontrolled.”
But apparently not bad enough to get a new trial or reversal. Instead of any actual consequences, the court says, in a concurrence by all three judges, that the prosecutors shouldn't do this again.
Nothing is going to change regarding the epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct until there are some consequences. I mean, the prosecutors in this case aren't even named in the opinion. Defendants receive obstruction enhancements for less. Walks of shame are not enough...
You thought we only covered the bickering amongst our district judges? No, dear readers! We also break the important news in the 11th Circuit, including that the court finally updated its font and format. It used to look like this:
It looks like the judges worked through their deadlock... by turning to the AO's published guidance which permits for a revote and if that doesn't result in a majority, then the Chief Judge gets to choose. It's unclear whether the revote broke up the logjam or whether the Judge Altonaga had to make the selection, but either way, it's over.
Congratulations to Ryon McCabe, a really good guy. We had cases against each other when we were both new lawyers (he was an AUSA and I was an AFPD). He was also honorable and is a smart guy. He's been in private practice for some time now and McCabe Rabin. The FBI will do its background check, which usually takes a few months, and then he will sit in West Palm Beach.
She covered all of the big trials in Miami back in the day. The Miami Herald has the obit here.
She once said the cast of characters she captured in her renderings — the cops, terrorists, judges, lawyers, drug smugglers, exiles and everyday folk — was just so Miami. “This is about our mix — this is the socio-political and economical history of Miami.” Henderson’s bold pastel strokes have also been exhibited at HistoryMiami Museum in a popular exhibit in 2010, and are on permanent display at the University of Miami School of Law, the Museum of Art of Fort Lauderdale, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland and nationally at museums in Michigan and Ohio.
Her courtroom work even hangs on the walls of South Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab after Jo Ann Bass bought 10 of her pieces in 1995 to hang on permanent exhibit at the landmark restaurant. “I have done every major trial in federal court for the last 35 years. These are historical documents. I think it’s very important to record the trials,” Henderson told the Herald in 2015.
That's the difficult question facing the federal judges in our district right now.
I previously reported on the short list for Magistrate Judge in West Palm Beach. This short list was recommended by a committee appointed by our Chief Judge. Last week, the district judges interviewed the five finalists (as is the practice in the Southern District of Florida). After the interviews, the 16 active judges voted on who would be the next Magistrate Judge.
The usual procedure would have the announcement that very day, but strangely I didn't hear that evening who got the nod. And my sources weren't talking.
Now we've found out why -- the vote ended in a tie* with no tie-breaking procedure. And no one is budging.
So now what? Our jury of judges seem to be hung.
Any advice for our brothers and sisters on the bench?
Members of the Judiciary: I'm going to ask that you continue your deliberations in an
effort to agree on a magistrate judge. And I have a few additional
comments I’d like for you to consider as you do so. Remember at all times that no district judge is expected to give up an honest belief
about the merits of an applicant. But after fully considering the
interviews and application, you must agree upon a magistrate judge if you can. You should not be hurried in your deliberations and should take all the time
you feel is necessary.
I now ask that you retire once again and continue your deliberations with
these additional comments in mind. Apply them in conjunction with all the other
instructions I have previously given to you.
*I have heard conflicting stories about whether the tie is 8-8 between two candidates of 5-5-5 (with one judge not voting) for three candidates. Because I can't get confirmation on the vote, I am not posting the names just yet.
I'm sure you saw by now that the two Varsity Blues defendants who went to trial were convicted. Via the NY Times:
Two parents were found guilty in federal court in Boston on Friday for participating in a bribery scheme to have their children fraudulently admitted as athletic recruits to some of the most prestigious universities in the country.
Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, a private equity financier, were the first people to stand trial in the federal investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues.
The investigation has snared more than 50 parents, coaches, exam administrators and others in an admissions scheme that implicated college athletic programs at the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest and Georgetown. Many other wealthy parents, including some celebrities, have pleaded guilty rather than take their chances in court.
Mr. Abdelaziz, 64, was accused of paying $300,000 in 2018 to have his daughter admitted to U.S.C. as a top-ranked basketball recruit even though she did not make the varsity team in high school. Mr. Wilson, 62, was accused of paying $220,000 in 2014 to have his son admitted as a water polo recruit at U.S.C. His son did play water polo, but prosecutors said he was not good enough to compete at the university.
Mr. Wilson was also accused of agreeing to pay $1.5 million in 2018 to have his twin daughters, who were good students, admitted to Harvard and Stanford as recruited athletes.
“What they did was an affront to hard-working students and parents,” Nathaniel R. Mendell, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in a news conference after the verdict. “But the verdict today proves that even these defendants, powerful and privileged people, are not above the law.”
This was always going to be a really hard sell to a jury, but the appeal will be fascinating because it's not altogether clear that this is an actual federal fraud crime. Another interesting part of the case is that the government did not call its "star witness," Rick Singer, who made the tape recordings of all of the parents.
Sentencing will also be worth watching. DOJ has tracked every Varsity Blues case, and the highest sentence so far is 9 months and the highest sentence requested by the government has been 18 months. Where will these two defendants end up just because they had the gall to go to trial? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I have the over-under at 24 months.
One night in
December 2018, two dozen lawyers and judges gathered at a fashionable
restaurant in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood to welcome a new member,
Damian Williams, into their distinguished fold.
had once been a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, running a special unit
in the U. S. attorney’s office that investigated fraud on Wall Street.
It was a job barely known to the public. But among New York’s corporate
and legal elite, it was a position of power and influence, often shared
Mr. Williams was the
latest appointee. That night, amid jocular toasts and ribbing, Judge Jed
S. Rakoff read a whimsical poem in honor of Mr. Williams, gently
mocking his self-effacing nature with an out-of-character boast:
“I’m now co-chief — my name is Damian,” the judge began. “Things will never be the same again.”
The judge was only teasing, but in one sense he got it right.
Tuesday, Mr. Williams, 41, was confirmed by the Senate to be the next
United States attorney for the Southern District of New York — a
position whose occupants have included future judges, senators, cabinet
members and a New York City mayor. The appointment would make Mr.
Williams the most powerful federal law enforcement official in Manhattan
and, significantly, the first Black person to lead the storied 232-year-old office.
“Beyond his extraordinary qualifications,
Damian is the right person at this time in history to be the U.S.
attorney for Manhattan,” said Theodore V. Wells Jr., a Black partner at
the law firm Paul, Weiss and one of the nation’s most prominent
“It’s important for both
Blacks and whites to see a person of African-American descent —
especially in this time where there’s so much social unrest — in that
top job,” Mr. Wells said.
Patton, the city’s federal public defender, said Mr. Williams now has
the opportunity to institute key reforms in the way his prosecutors
charge cases, like embracing President Biden’s campaign pledge to end
mandatory minimum sentences.
“This is a core issue he can tackle,” Mr. Patton said.
issue Mr. Williams will confront is diversity in his office: Of its 232
assistant U.S. attorneys and executives, only seven — including himself
— are African American.
Longtime Riviera Beach gadfly Fane Lozman this week towed his 20-foot-long floating home away from the banks of Singer Island to comply with a state court order saying that its bottom was damaging environmentally sensitive seagrasses that are protected by Florida law.
On Friday, federal officials told U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks that Lozman is now running afoul of federal rules.
The floating container home, anchored in a cove south of John D. McArthur Beach State Park, poses a hazard to marine navigation and should be removed from the water immediately, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice said during a five-hour court hearing.
The dueling lawsuits — one filed against Lozman by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in Palm Beach County Circuit Court and the other by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court — has put the former U.S. Marine and self-made millionaire in an untenable position, Middlebrooks said.
“Mr. Lozman is caught between state and federal regulatory agencies,” he said.
Further, Middlebrooks said, it appears Lozman may be the victim of selective enforcement.
The Army Corps cited Lozman for last year anchoring his 910-square-foot container home on submerged land he owns off Singer Island. Yet, Middlebrooks noted, it has done nothing to force the removal of a partially submerged rusted barge that has been in the Lake Worth Lagoon for at least four years and appears to pose a far greater risk to boaters.
“I realize that there’s a fair amount of regulatory discretion that the Corps has,” Middlebrooks said. “But seeing that barge and that metal and comparing it to what Mr. Lozman has, well, there’s no comparison.”
Further, he said, living on the Intracoastal Waterway, he is no stranger to local waters.
“Going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I’ve seen more structures that pose more harm than Mr. Lozman’s stripped-down container home,” he said.
In other SDFLA news, Judge Kathy Williams presided over a civil trial last week. The plaintiff, represented by Mark Schweikert, won $6 million against the Miami-Dade School Board. From the Herald:
A federal jury has ordered the Miami-Dade School Board to pay $6 million to a former student of an ex-Palmetto High teacher accused of harassing and sexually abusing a string of female students. In a verdict late Friday, jurors concluded the school district, despite multiple warnings, did nothing to stop Jason Edward Meyers, a creative writing teacher.
The verdict found Meyers “posed a substantial risk of sexual abuse or harassment to female students,” yet the district was “deliberately indifferent” in how it handled the accusations. The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of an unidentified student in 2019. It was the second lawsuit filed in the Meyers saga — an earlier lawsuit from another former student settled for $1.1 million.
Jurors deliberated less than two hours in ruling in favor of the young woman, who was about 16 and 17 when she was groomed into having sex with Meyers on campus. Now 23, the woman testified during last week’s trial, as did several other victims. “She was one who was brave and courageous to be scrutinized in that way,” said her attorney, Mark Schweikert. “To win it in the eyes of the jurors — members of this community — is incredibly cathartic for her and for myself as her advocate.”
Meyers, 46, is still awaiting trial in Miami-Dade criminal court in a case involving the same victim from last week’s trial — she will have to testify again. To the frustration of his victims, the criminal trial has been pending for more than five years, because Meyers changed attorneys — and then because of the pandemic. He’s awaiting trial on three felony counts of engaging in sex with a minor.
Meyers was not named in the federal lawsuit. “No one was interested in hearing his side of the story in that civil case,” said his criminal defense attorney, Bradley Horenstein. “Jason Meyers is innocent. Looking forward to our day in court.”
The Miami-Dade school district, in a statement on Monday, did not say whether it will appeal.
It's the First Monday in October, which means the Supreme Court Justices are coming back from their summer vacations. (In addition to term limits as SCOTUS reform, I think it's time to do away with their three month break in the summer.) So what's on tap for this Term? Here's a good summary of the biggest cases, which address abortion and guns, from Vox:
For four decades, anti-abortion activists have dreamed of the day when the Supreme Court would overrule Roe v. Wade. That day could be just months away, as the Court will hear a case this winter asking it to destroy Roe.
The National Rifle Association, like other, even more strident gun rights groups, spent those decades dreaming of an expansive Second Amendment that sweeps even the most venerable firearms regulations into the trash bin. This fall, the Court will hear a challenge to a 108-year-old law laying out who may obtain a license to carry a firearm in New York.
A more obscure issue, but one that could have even more sweeping consequences, is the question of when federal agencies — acting pursuant to a statute enacted by Congress — may regulate private businesses and individuals. The conservative Federalist Society has long obsessed over plans to strip federal agencies of this regulatory power. This month, right-wing groups flooded theSupreme Courtwith briefs asking the justices to overrule a seminal precedent preventing judges from sabotaging agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, will make all these groups’ dreams come true. But Republican advocacy organizations of all stripes appear convinced that now is the time to shoot for the moon, and so these issues — along with a host of others ranging from anti-discrimination law to partisan gerrymandering — are on the docket this coming Supreme Court term, which starts Monday, October 4.
In a combative speech on Thursday, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. defended several of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on what critics call its “shadow docket,” saying the news media had created the impression that “a dangerous cabal is deciding important issues in a novel, secretive, improper way in the middle of the night, hidden from public view.”
He addressed the recent decisions in unusual detail, rejecting, for instance, what he said was the “false and inflammatory claim that we nullified Roe v. Wade” in early September by allowing a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks to come into effect.
“We did no such thing, and we said so expressly in our order,” he said, quoting from it. Indeed, the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling said it based its decision on procedural grounds and did not address the constitutionality of the Texas law.
The effect of the ruling, however, has been to deny abortions to most women in Texas. In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority’s unsigned order “illustrates just how far the court’s ‘shadow docket’ decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process.”
“Without full briefing or argument, and after less than 72 hours’ thought,” she wrote, “this court greenlights the operation of Texas’ patently unconstitutional law banning most abortions.”
Justice Alito’s speech, at the University of Notre Dame, was largely devoted to addressing the “shadow docket,” which he called a loaded and misleading phrase.
“The catchy and sinister term ‘shadow docket’ has been used to portray the court as having been captured by a dangerous cabal that resorts to sneaky and improper methods to get its ways,” he said. “This portrayal feeds unprecedented efforts to intimidate the court and to damage it as an independent institution.”
Miamian Linda Lopez, who is now a Magistrate Judge in San Diego and was an assistant federal defender before that, has been nominated to the district court in S.D. Cal. From the White House:
Linda Lopez: Nominee for the United States District Court for the Southern District of California Judge Linda Lopez has served as a Magistrate Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California since 2018. From 2007 to 2018, Judge Lopez worked as a federal public defender in San Diego. From 2003 to 2007, Judge Lopez worked as a criminal defense attorney in Miami as a solo practitioner, where she served on the Criminal Justice Act Panel and represented indigent defendants in federal court on a court-appointed basis. Judge Lopez began her career as a criminal defense attorney in private practice from 1999 to 2003. Judge Lopez received her J.D., magna cum laude and Order of the Coif, from the University of Miami School of Law in 1999 and her B.A., magna cum laude, from Florida International University in 1996. She also received her A.S. in 1994 and her A.A. in 1992, both from Miami Dade Community College.
San Diego Superior Judge Jinsook Ohta, left, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Lopez have been nominated by President Joe Biden for district judge seats for the Southern District of California.
(Courtesy of U.S. Courts and San Diego Superior Court)