July 24, 2019 / by 

 

Unconstitutional Surveillance & United States v. U.S. District Court: Who The Winner Is May Be A Secret – Part 1

[Given the current surveillance state situation in America, the Keith case, formally known as United States v. United States District Court, is one of the most important cases from our recent past. But I don’t really believe you can understand or know the law of a case, without really understanding the facts. The Keith case doesn’t have simple facts, but they are fascinating and instructive. So bear with me – this is going to take awhile, and will be laid out over a series of four posts. What follows today is Part I. – Mary]

It was a time of war. America had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. The National Security Agency (NSA) and our military had reassured us this was true. Our national security apparatus, Congress and press had joined behind the office of the President to lead us into a series of forays (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) that would leave tens of thousands of American soldiers dead and many times that wounded physically or mentally, while at the same time decimating over three million Vietnamese and over a 1.5 million Laotians and Cambodians.

At home, we were working our way through the civil rights movement, dealing with the cold war and threats of Russian nuclear weapons and witnessing anti-war protests that left students dead and buildings bombed. Algeria was hosting U.S. fugitives from justice, Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy Leary, while Cuban connections were alleged to be behind much of the organized anti-war movement.

Court martial proceedings had begun for the My Lai killings with polls showing most of America objected to the trial. President Nixon would later pardon Lt. Calley for his role. A trial had also, briefly, seemed to be in the works for the “Green Beret Affair,” the killing of Thai Khac Chuyen by Green Berets running an intelligence program called Project GAMMA. The investigation began after one of the soldiers assigned to the Project became convinced that he was also being scheduled for termination. Charges in the Green Beret Affair would be dropped after the CIA refused to make personnel available, claiming national security privileges.

Against this backdrop, Nixon and his campaign manager – attorney general, John Mitchell (the only attorney general to date to be convicted for illegal activities), began a warrantless wiretapping program, authorized only by the White House and Mitchell, with no oversight and no review by an independent magistrate. A secret program that they claimed was necessary for reasons of national security.

This is part of the complex and ongoing story of United States Executive Branch violations of law, and the role the judiciary has played, or failed to play, to address those illegal and unconstitutional activities. One of the central chapters in this story, to date, involves the efforts of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to force Federal District Court Judge Damon Keith of the Eastern District of Michigan, in the case of United States v. U.S. District Court (the “Keith Case”), to support the Executive’s power to disregard the Constitution and domestic law during a time of war.

The Bombing and Indictments.

The important cases never have easy facts. The progenitor of the Keith Case was United States v. Sinclair. The Sinclair prosecution was based on indictments against White Panther members, John Sinclair, Lawrence (Larry) “Pun” Plamondon and John Waterhouse Forrest for the September 29, 1968 bombing of a CIA office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the bombing, Plamondon went underground, traveling to various foreign countries before landing in Algeria. By 1969 he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.

The lure of Michigan was too strong for him to stay away, though. He was arrested after being pulled over for throwing beer cans out of his car. In U.S. v. Sinclair, Plamondon was represented by the famous defense lawyer, William Kunstler and the case was assigned to Judge Damon Keith. Early in the case, Kunstler filed a Motion to require the Department of Justice to turn over any electronic surveillance of the defendants, including any illegal surveillance.

That Motion relied in part upon a case decided just a year or so earlier, Alderman v. United States (March 10, 1969), where the Supreme Court had ruled that the government had a duty to turn over illegal surveillance information to the defense.

What the Alderman Case Meant.

In Alderman, the Department of Justice (DOJ) admitted they had engaged in illegal surveillance (not authorized by any warrant), but argued that the court should let the illegal surveillor – DOJ – unilaterally review the surveillance information to determine whether any of the information was “relevant” to their prosecution case. DOJ would not be required to turn over any of the illegal surveillance information unless they made the in-house determination of relevance to the prosecution’s case in chief. .

The Supreme Court response was, roughly translated: Nice try, but no. With that argument shot down, DOJ made a fallback argument. They should only have to provide the surveillance information to a judge for review in camera and only any information that the judge, after review, determined was “arguably relevant” to the criminal case at hand would need to be provided to the defense.

DOJ argued that this process – of blocking defense access – was necessary because of the “potential danger to the reputation or safety of third parties or to the national security.” The Supreme Court was less than impressed by this argument, finding instead that a fair adversary proceeding required the turnover of all the illegal surveillance:

Although this may appear a modest proposal, especially since the standard for disclosure would be “arguable” relevance, we conclude that surveillance records as to which any petitioner has standing to object should be turned over to him without being screened in camera by the trial judge.

…Adversary proceedings are a major aspect of our system of criminal justice. Their superiority as a means for attaining justice in a given case is nowhere more evident than in those cases, such as the ones at bar, where an issue must be decided on the basis of a large volume of factual materials, and after consideration of the many and subtle interrelationships which may exist among the facts reflected by these records. As the need for adversary inquiry is increased by the complexity of the issues presented for adjudication, and by the consequent inadequacy of ex parte procedures as a means for their accurate resolution, the displacement of well-informed advocacy necessarily becomes less justifiable.

. . . It may be that the prospect of disclosure will compel the Government to dismiss some prosecutions in deference to national security or third-party interests. But this is a choice the Government concededly faces with respect to material which it has obtained illegally and which it admits, or which a judge would find, is arguably relevant to the evidence offered against the defendant. (emph. added)

The Illegal Surveillance of Plamondon.

The U.S. Attorney handling the Sinclair case indicated that he was unaware of any such illegal surveillance, but that he would have Main Justice check with the FBI. When the word came back that there had been illegal surveillance of Plamondon, things changed. Based on Alderman, it would seem clear that the information was well on its way to being turned over to the defense. Except that it wasn’t.

The US Attorney did provide surveillance logs to Judge Keith in camera but, despite the Supreme Court recent ruling in Alderman, DOJ argued that Judge Keith could not make the information available to the defendants. The DOJ argued, just as it had (and lost) in Alderman, that there were national security aspects to the case.

So what was new and different? Well, the Government upped the ante over their bid in Alderman in three ways. First, they claimed that the wiretaps were not actually illegal and instead were somehow authorized by exception pursuant to Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Next, and somewhat overlapping, they argued that even though the wiretaps were on their face warrantless and illegal, there were not, actually illegal because of the so-called “Mitchell Doctrine.” These elements of what the case have received the bulk of the scrutiny and helped form some of the basis for the FISA legislation which Congress later passed. There is another place where the DOJ upped the ante, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s look at the arguments.

The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 Argument.

This argument went something like this. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Omnibus Act) spells out how warrants will be handled for criminal cases (including making violations of the warrant requirements of the Omnibus Act a serious crime) except that the Omnibus Act specified an area where it did not apply.

Nothing contained in this chapter or in section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934 (48 Stat. 1143; 47 U.S.C. 605) shall limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the Nation against actual or potential attack or other hostile acts of a foreign power, to obtain foreign intelligence information deemed essential to the security of the United States, or to protect national security information against foreign intelligence activities. Nor shall anything contained in this chapter be deemed to limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the United States against the overthrow of the Government by force or other unlawful means, or against any other clear and present danger to the structure or existence of the Government. The contents of any wire or oral communication intercepted by authority of the President in the exercise of the foregoing powers may be received in evidence in any trial hearing, or other proceeding only where such interception was reasonable, and shall not be otherwise used or disclosed except as is necessary to implement that power.”

DOJ argued that this exception to coverage was also intended to be a Congressional recognition of, or maybe even a grant to, the President of the power to engage in warrantless wiretaps.

The Mitchell Doctrine Argument.

The Mitchell Doctrine argument went a few steps further. It was based on a claim of inherent power. This Doctrine asserted that the Attorney General, as a representative of the Executive Branch, had the inherent constitutional power to authorize electronic surveillance without a warrant in “national security” cases and to unilaterally determine whether a particular circumstance falls within the scope of a “national security” concern.

The Mitchell Doctrine was the DOJ’s end run around Alderman, but the Sinclair case was not the only case where DOJ was attempting that end run.

While defense lawyers and Judge Damon J. Keith sat open-mouthed, the government tendered an affidavit from the attorney general, John Mitchell — soon to be of Watergate infamy. Mitchell stated in writing that he, on behalf of the president, had the authority to order wiretaps without judicial approval to “protect the nation from attempts of domestic organizations to attack and subvert the government.”

By itself, this case might have been a weird wrinkle in turbulent times. When comparing notes nationally, though, progressive defense lawyers realized there was a pattern. Mitchell had done the same thing in the Chicago 7 / 8 case [internal link] and in a Black Panther trial in California. Something was up. The attorneys came to a conclusion that shocked them: The Justice Department was openly demanding judicial approval of a scheme in which the president alone, without legislative advice or consent, without judicial oversight, decided when the Bill of Rights [internal link] would be suspended, and which citizens’ rights would be overborne. The designation “subversive” would not be defined. “Probable cause,” the ancient Constitutional requirement, would not be shown. The lawyers were aghast not only

at the arrogance of the government’s position. They feared that the government might win. Mitchell’s Justice Department would not have opted for this strategy — no longer denying the illegal bugs, but admitting them, and telling the courts to find them legal — unless they were confident in their position.

… two weeks previously, a Nixon administration official (H.R. Haldeman …) had claimed that the Democrats were giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” Under the government’s scheme, such a designation would open even the political party out of power to warrantless eavesdropping by whoever held the White House.

As a result of the government’s coordinated, nationwide strategy invoking the Mitchell Doctrine, by the time Judge Keith ruled in the Sinclair case, there were several other cases at various stages including one in the Central District of California, United States v. Smith, where another judge’s ruling was very influential.

[Part II will how the District Court judges dealt with the Mitchell Doctrine in Smith and Sinclair, the curious action of the DOJ in response thereto and the eventual Supreme Court decision.]


Where’s Cheney and His Freon Pump?

Well this is good news, the United States Department of Justice is interested in finding and prosecuting human rights violators here in the “Homeland”. From the special announcement from DOJ:

The Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section actively seeks out information that may assist the U.S. Government in identifying human rights violators who may have entered the United States.

If you know of anyone in the United States or of any U.S. citizen anywhere in the world who may have been involved in perpetrating human rights violations abroad, please contact HRSP either by email at [email protected] or by postal mail at:

Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (Tips)

Criminal Division

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, DC 20530-0001

You do not have to identify yourself when providing information. Please provide as much detail as possible, such as:

* the suspect’s name, place and date of birth,

* physical description, and current location;

* the suspect’s alleged human rights violations including the locations and dates of those activities;

* how you learned of the suspect’s alleged activities and when and where you saw the suspect.

We are unable to reply to every submission; however, your information will be reviewed promptly by HRSP.

Information on non-U.S. citizen suspects living in the United States may be provided to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, at 1-866-347-2423 (a toll-free call).

Anybody here have any suggestions for the DOJ?? Glenn Greenwald has more.


Witt Reinstated To The Air Force; Wittless In The White House

The late, but great, news this fine Friday afternoon is the decision of Western District of Washington (WDWA) Judge Ronald Leighton in the case of Air Force Major Margaret Witt. Witt has been an Air Force reserve flight and operating room nurse since 1987 and was suspended from duty in 2004, just short of retirement, upon her base commanders being informed by an off base nosy neighbor that she was a lesbian.

From NPR:

A federal judge ruled Friday that a decorated flight nurse discharged from the Air Force for being gay should be given her job back as soon as possible in the latest legal setback to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton came in a closely watched case as a tense debate has been playing out over the policy. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to lift the ban this week, but two federal judges have ruled against the policy in recent weeks.

Maj. Margaret Witt was discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and sued to get her job back. A judge in 2006 rejected Witt’s claims that the Air Force violated her rights when it fired her. An appeals court panel overruled him two years later, leaving it to Leighton to determine whether her firing met that standard.

This is indeed a wonderful decision, and one based upon the elevated level of scrutiny that is now clearly the standard in Federal court consideration of the rights based on sexual preference. The full text of the court’s decision is here. The critical language from the decision setting and clearing the table is as follows:

Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a Complaint on April 12, 2006. On July 26, 2006, this Court granted the government’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), concluding that the regulation was subject to rational basis scrutiny, and that the evidentiary hearings held, and factual findings adopted, by Congress provided a sufficient foundation to support the regulation. Plaintiff timely appealed.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiff. It held that Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 123 S. Ct. 2472 (2003) effectively overruled previous cases wherein the Ninth Circuit had applied rational basis to DADT and predecessor policies. It held that something more than traditional rational basis review was required. Witt v. Department of the Air Force, 527 F.3d 806, 813 (9th Cir. 2008). The Circuit

Court vacated the judgment and remanded to the District Court the plaintiff’s substantive and procedural due process claims. It affirmed this Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equal protection claim. On remand, this Court was directed to determine whether the specific application of DADT to Major Witt significantly furthers the government’s interest, and whether less intrusive means would substantially achieve the government’s interest. Witt, 527 F.3d at 821.

Now comes the interesting part of the opinion (and case as argued by the government) and it ties in directly with the Log Cabin Republicans v. USA DOD decision recently rendered in the Central District of California (I will return to that in a bit). Specifically, the 9th Circuit based at least partially upon briefing in the alternative by the government (i.e arguing multiple positions), granted the government’s argument that, at a minimum, they were at least entitled to argue that homosexuals were bad for moral and unit cohesion on a case by case basis.

In essence, the government figured that, rather than lose the whole case, they would be “smart” and roll with being able to at least handle it on a case by case basis. But Judge Leighton saw through the government’s baloney in the remand of the very case they had argued it, Witt:

Added to this calculus, is the government’s plea for uniformity. Lt. General Charles Stenner, the government’s expert, made the unassailable point that uniformity and consistency in the administration of personnel policies is a desirable objective. When similar people are treated differently, morale and cohesion suffer. The government argues that Major Witt’s continued military service necessarily would result in the application of a different personnel policy to her than to other service members, such as those in the First Circuit, where the DADT statute was upheld as constitutional. See, Cook v. Gates, 528 F.3d 42, 60 (1st Cir. 2008). The argument proves too much, however. The call for uniformity defies as-applied analysis. By definition, if uniformity is required, exceptions cannot be encouraged. And if exceptions cannot be encouraged, as-applied analysis is pointless. The direction to this Court to apply DADT to the specific circumstances of Major Witt compels it to reject any notion that the overriding need for uniformity trumps individualized treatment of Major Witt.

…..

For the reasons expressed, the Court concludes that DADT, when applied to Major Margaret Witt, does not further the government’s interest in promoting military readiness, unit morale and cohesion. If DADT does not significantly further an important government interest under prong two of the three-part test, it cannot be necessary to further that interest as required under prong three. Application of DADT therefore violates Major Witt’s substantive due process rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. She should be reinstated at the earliest possible moment.

In a nutshell, Leighton called bullshit on the government, and rightly so. The government came out of the earlier appeal in Witt with the order that it only seek DADT discharges where it was provably appropriate, and then went and tried to continue to do just that in the most absurd case imaginable, and after having been excoriated on the facts by the 9th Circuit. And the decision to so proceed in the face of such overwhelming absurdity was made squarely by the Obama DOJ, the tools of the Administration that ran for, and took, office promising to do the opposite.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Log Cabin Republican (LCR) case. Shocking, but true, the Obama DOJ doubled down on the hypocritical two faced argument. In LCR, Judge Virginia Phillips found DADT unconstitutional under both due process and First Amendment analysis and, seeing as how the case sought injunctive relief, told the plaintiff LCRs to submit a proposed injunction and the government to put any objections in writing thereafter. The plaintiff LCRs submitted their proposed injunctive order on September 16th, and the government filed its objection thereto yesterday. (By the way, the reply by the LCRs was literally just filed and is here).

Now the hilarity and absurdity of the Obama Administration policy rears its ugly head because, you see, part of the government’s objection in LCR is based on the Witt 9th Circuit decision that they should at least be entitled to make a showing on a case by case basis. When, at almost the same exact moment, the Obama Administration was proving in the further proceedings of the Witt case itself, that they could not, and would not, adhere to the spirit of Witt and proceed intelligently and on a case by case basis where they could prove morale and unit cohesion were at risk.

Instead, what the Obama Administration, by and through the actions of their Department of Justice, have proven that their current rhetoric about being dedicated to ending DADT is as empty as their similar campaign promises were hollow. Yet day after day, the Administration wonders why those on the left are unhappy and chastises them for not clapping loudly enough heading into midterm elections where turnout of the base is critical. Tin ear does not begin to describe this arrogance.


What Bush and Ashcroft Meant By “If al-Qaida Is Calling”

Remember when George W. Bush defended his illegal warrantless surveillance program with these lines:

We are at war with an enemy who wants to hurt us again …. If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why,” he said. “We’re at war with a bunch of coldblooded killers.

…when we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so … We’re at war, and as commander in chief, I’ve got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people

That statement was made on January 2, 2006 in direct response to a question Bush got about Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s blockbuster article in the New York Times exposing the illegal program that went to print just two weeks prior.

Since those early days of realizing the United States government was running an illegal and unconstitutional spy surveillance operation on its own citizens, we have learned an awful lot. For too many citizens, it does not even seem to hold interest. Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights reminds us what the Bush Administration was really up to, how patently absurd it was and just how big of a lie George Bush fostered on the American public. Turns out “If al-Qaida is calling” meant random government searches of phone books for Muslim sounding names and taking crank phone calls.

From a CCR press release I just received:

Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) announced that six new plaintiffs have joined a federal, class action lawsuit, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, challenging their detention and mistreatment by prison guards and high level Bush administration officials in the wake of 9/11. In papers filed in Federal Court in Brooklyn, CCR details new allegations linking former Attorney General Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials to the illegal roundups and abuse of the detainees.

Five of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit won a $1.26 million settlement in November 2009.

The new plaintiffs include two Pakistani men, Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi and Anser Mehmood; two men from Egypt, Ahmed Khalifa and Saeed Hammouda; Benamar Benatta, an Algerian man who has sought and received refugee status in Canada; and Purna Raj Bajracharya, a Nepalese Buddhist whose prolonged detention after 9/11 prompted outrage not only by civil libertarians, but even by the FBI agent who originally investigated him. Despite the fact that the government never charged any of them with a terrorism-related offense, the INS kept the men in detention for up to eight months, long past the resolution of their immigration cases. CCR attorneys say that the government treated these men as terrorists during that time, placing them in ultra-restrictive, super-maximum security confinement and abusing them. The treatment was based not on any actual evidence tying the men to terrorism, but merely because of their race, religion, and national origin.

“I was deprived of my liberty and I was abused at the hands of the U.S. government simply because of my religion and ethnicity. Now, nine years later, I seek to vindicate my rights and hold the people who mistreated me accountable,” said Benamar Benatta. “My hope is that this never happens to anyone again.”

Mr. Benatta succeeded in having a criminal charge for possession of false immigration documents thrown out of court when the federal judge in his case ruled that his immigration detention was a “subterfuge” and “sham” created to hide the reality that, because Benatta was an “Algerian citizen and a member of the Algerian Air Force, [he] was spirited off to the MDC Brooklyn…and held in the [Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit] as ‘high security’ for the purposes of providing an expeditious means of having [him] interrogated by special agents of the FBI.”

“For almost ten years now, former 9/11 detainees have been fighting for acknowledgment that government officials, no matter what exalted position they hold, cannot get away with ordering abuse and racial profiling,” explained Rachel Meeropol, staff attorney at CCR. “This battle is far from over.”

The new suit names as defendants then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, former INS Commissioner James Ziglar and officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where the plaintiffs were held. It includes additional detail regarding high-level involvement in racial profiling and abuse, including allegations that former Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the INS and FBI to investigate individuals for ties to terrorism by, among other means, looking for Muslim-sounding names in the phonebook. In the resulting dragnet, hundreds of men were arrested, many based on anonymous and discriminatory tips called in to the FBI.

The complaint also discloses, in some cases for the first time, the discriminatory and nonsensical tips that led to each plaintiff’s arrest and detention. Lead plaintiff Mr. Turkmen, for example, was arrested after his landlady called the FBI to report that she rented an apartment to several Middle Eastern men, and “she would feel awful if her tenants were involved in terrorism and she didn’t call.”

Among other documented abuses in detention, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, “These colors don’t run.” The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told “welcome to America.” The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.

Michael Winger, CCR cooperating counsel, said, “Last year the Supreme Court tried to derail challenges to the Attorney General’s role in this scheme by announcing tough new pleading standards for claims against high level government officials. We’re going forward to show that despite the new standards, even cabinet officials can be held responsible for abusive treatment.”

The suit further charges that the detainees were kept in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day; placed under a communications blackout so that they could not seek the assistance of their attorneys, families and friends; subjected to physical and verbal abuse; forced to endure inhumane conditions of confinement; and obstructed in their efforts to practice their religion. One of the new plaintiffs, Saeed Hammouda, was forced to endure eight months of this abuse before he was cleared of any connection to terrorism and deported.

Some of the abuse included beatings, repeated strip searches and sleep deprivation. The allegations of inhumane and degrading treatment have been substantiated by two reports of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, and several defendants in the case have been convicted on federal charges of cover-ups and beatings of other prisoners around the same time period.

There has been constant, at least in these circles, focus on the due process black hole we have thrown hundreds and hundreds of men into at Gitmo, Bagram and the black sites. But it was not just over there, as the CCR Turkmen v. Ashcroft case above, and the Zeitoun case in post-Katrina New Orleans prove, it is right here at home too.

Turns out “If al-qaida is calling” really meant a tragic game show of “Dialing for Detainees” and taking crank calls from batty old landladies. Based on this atrocious “evidence” human beings were detained without due process, beaten and abused. Right here in the “Homeland”. The new definition of “security”. there is nothing really new in today’s CCR announcement, but it is good to be reminded of where we were not long ago and where, thanks to the cover and complicity of the Obama Administration, we still likely may be.


With Kagan On SCOTUS, We Are Still Down A Justice

With the long anticipated retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, it was important for President Obama to appoint and get confirmed a new justice so there would not only be a full compliment of justices on the court, but to insure the ideological balance of the court was maintained. By selecting Elena Kagan, Obama certainly did not pick the most qualified person for the job, nor did he maintain the ideological balance particularly as Kagan undoubtedly moved the court to the right at least to some degree.

Now, it turns out, by appointing Kagan Obama did not even give the Court a full compliment of justices. From the Blog of Legal Times:

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan this week quietly recused herself in 10 cases that will be argued in the term beginning Oct. 4, bringing to 21 the number of cases in which she will not participate.

That represents more than half of the 40 cases the Court has already agreed to hear in the new term — a number that will grow in coming months as the justices agree to hear arguments in more new cases.

During her confirmation this summer, Kagan already indicated she would recuse in 11 cases in which she was counsel of record as solicitor general. The new batch appears to reflect a determination that her participation at earlier stages — even where her office did not file a brief — required her to step aside.

So, as it stands today, Kagan will not be participating in over half the cases on the Supreme Court docket for the coming term. Lovely. A full list of the cases Justice Kagan has recused on to date can be found at the BLT link.

What is more distressing, however, are the cases to come that Kagan will also undoubtedly be recusing on. For instance the al-Haramain, Jeppesen and Jewel cases from the 9th Circuit. There are a whole plethora of Executive/Unitary power, Habeas, Gitmo, Detainee and other critical war on terror cases Kagan either did have, or may have had, her fingers on as head of the Solicitor General’s office. At this point, it looks like she plans on recusing herself from anything and everything that was in her vicinity, no matter how nominally. As should be well known by now, there is no necessity for a justice to recuse from everything they have ever known about, no less an authority than Antonin Scalia proved that.

Now, quite frankly, I have no problem with Elena Kagan recusing from consideration of Vaughn Walker’s decision in al-Haramain, I think the case would be better off without her toadying for the Obama Administration’s view of supreme Executive power and covering of crimes through assertion of state secrets, but what about the Prop 8 Perry v. Schwarzenegger case? In case you have forgotten, a portion of that case (the cameras in the court issue) went to the Supreme Court; if Elena Kagan decides she has to recuse herself, or is looking for an excuse to avoid such a controversial matter, that is going to be a HUGE blow to the chances of success on appeal.

I wonder how many people really understood they would be getting a part time justice for such a critical period over the next couple of years? And for all those on the liberal end of the political spectrum that carped about the fundamental dishonesty of John Roberts when he swore he was just a “balls and strikes” kind of guy “respectful of precedent”, I wonder what they think of the same type of deception from Kagan when she ridiculously understated the depth of her anticipated recusal problem to the Judiciary Committee?

There were a lot of things needed from President Obama’s choice to fill the seat of Justice John Paul Stevens; none of them have been fulfilled so far by Elena Kagan.


Letter to Earl Blumenauer Re: Indemnification Agreements

Dear Congressman Blumenauer:

I must say, I was both surprised and heartened to see you intrepidly and doggedly pursuing the existence and nature of indemnification agreements from the United States government insulating and immunizing private companies such as Halliburton/KBR from damage liability they would otherwise accrue for heinous, illegal and/or unconscionable acts committed in their participation in national security and the war on terror. Excellent work sir!

However, now that you are up to speed on the insidious use and abuse of such provisions, maybe you would like to continue your fine work – and give honor to your oath of office to defend the Constitution – and ask the same questions, and demand answers thereto, regarding indemnification agreements given to telcos by the Bush Administration in conjunction with the telcos’ participation in the illegal and unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping program instituted by the Bush/Cheney Administration. And we know the program was illegal and unconstitutional because a United States Federal Judge directly and specifically declared it to be just that.

So, what you need to know is that the same type of craven indemnification agreements you have pluckily exposed for Halliburton/KBR were almost certainly given to the telcos participating in the President’s Wiretapping Program, and you owe it to your constituents and the citizens of this country to look into it and get answers just as you have done here.

Now I know this may be a lot to grasp and there is much for you to learn in order to successfully pursue this matter, but by great and fortuitous luck, I have already laid out everything you will need to get going. In fact, I did it nearly three years ago, and here is a taste:

For the foregoing reasons, the telcos are already protected by the immunity of existing statutory safe harbor provisions for legal conduct requested by the Administration and will have indemnity for other acts demanded by the Administration. I respectfully submit that the telcos are already sufficiently protected from the Spectre (some pun intended) of massive financial peril of the existing civil lawsuits; and that the only real reason for the desperate push for immunity is panic among Administration officials that their craven illegality will be exposed and they will be held to account. We now know for a fact, that which we have always suspected, thanks to Mike McConnell, namely that the entire belligerent push for FISA reform is all about immunity, and not about what George Bush would call “protectun Amarikuh”.

The minor issues with FISA that need tweaking could have been easily accomplished and, indeed, Congress offered long ago to work with them to do just that; but, of course, were belligerently spurned because, as Dick Cheney famously bellowed, “We believe… that we have all the legal authority we need”. This furious push has been about immunity, from the start, to prevent discovery of the Administration’s blatant and unconscionable criminal activity. The House of Representatives, and the cave-in Administration cover-up specialists in the Senate as well, should take a long, hard look at what is really going on here and steadfastly refuse the Administration’s self serving craven grab for the cover of telco immunity.

But, alas, Congress, which you were a member of, went along like a bunch of blind lemmings with the Bush/Cheney Administration’s demand for immunity for telcos that, along with the dishonest assertion of state secrets, has completely eviscerated citizens’ ability to know and understand what illegal and unconstitutional actions the US government is taking in their name, not to mention ability to seek proper redress for the crimes and acts.

So, now that you are all hardwired in on indemnification abuse, and on a roll of success, how about you go ahead and pursue this part of it? Come on Earl, it is your duty after all. Thank you in advance for your attention and cooperation in resolving this important matter.

Sincerely,

bmaz


The Nomination Gap In The Justice System

Hot on the heels of a pretty spirited discussion of the Obama Administration treatment of progressive nominees, both in the blog post here at Emptywheel and yesterday on Twitter, comes the reminder by Main Justice that there are no appointed, nor confirmed, US Attorneys in all of Texas:

Career prosecutors have run the four U.S. Attorney’s offices in Texas for more than a year. Obama has made one U.S. Attorney nomination in Texas thus far: state Judge John B. Stevens Jr., who withdrew from consideration for Eastern District of Texas U.S. Attorney.

The Senate has confirmed 66 of Obama’s U.S. Attorney nominees. There are 93 U.S. Attorney posts.

Now the framing of the report is a complaint by John Cornyn, which I have little sympathy for, and who has undoubtedly contributed somewhat to the impasse; but that said, the facts are pretty astounding.

Over a year and a half into the Obama Presidency, and still over 30% of the US Attorney positions remain unfilled or, even worse, still under the control of Bush/Cheney appointees. The percentage is only that low due to a recent surge in investitures of US Attorneys; for most of the current Administration’s term, the situation was even far worse than it is as of today.

Which led me to wonder exactly what the corresponding status was for federal judicial nominations. It is fairly bleak. There are 103 Federal judicial vacancies and, shockingly, on 48 of them even have so much as a nominee pending. 12% of the 876 total Federal judgeships are sitting vacant. In my own little nook of the world, the 9th Circuit, there are 13 total judicial seats vacant, and only three of them have even putative nominees.

The critical importance of filling judicial vacancies is explained very nicely in a current post by Gaius Publius at AmericaBlog that expands on my Progressive Nominations/Goodwin Liu post yesterday:

This matters for several reasons. One is that the current judiciary is overwhelmingly Republican-appointed and conservative (including Movement-Conservative):

Over the last three decades, Republicans have put the appointment of conservative judges at the top of their agenda. And controlling the White House 20 of the last 30 years has allowed them to carry out their plan. By the time George W. Bush left office, 60.2 percent of the judges, including two-thirds of the Supreme Court, had been appointed by Republican presidents. The younger Bush appointed nearly 40 percent of all federal judges.

Yet Obama has been cautious to the point of weird about reversing this trend. While news stories on this subject headline his lack of judicial confirmations, stories like this one also contain tales of his caution; Bloomberg:

A lot of groups are still waiting for this president to nominate someone who will really reshape the bench,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights in Washington. The group supports expanding legal protection for blacks and other minorities.

Gaius Publius is exactly right. In fact, reshaping the Federal judiciary away from the hard conservative Federalist society bent that has been installed and meticulously grown by the Reagan and two Bush Administrations was one of the primary rallying cries for Democrats, including the Obama campaign, during the 2008 election. And, yes, there has been significant and unified Republican obstructionism; that is absolutely a factor. The problem is that there has been little if any fight put up by the Obama Administration and instead mostly weak resignation.

And you have to wonder how the situation on nominations at the White House is going to get any better soon with this news:

White House Counsel Robert Bauer will assume responsibilities for lobbying, transparency, government reform and a host of other government operations issues once White House ethics adviser Norman Eisen departs for his new role as ambassador to the Czech Republic, senior administration officials confirmed Friday.

Since Bauer was supposedly the go to guru for nominations, and especially judicial nominations, It is hard to see how a major dilution of his time (he is already White House Counsel after all, which you would think might take up a lot of time) by adding a giant new portfolio on ethics compliance is going to help the already languishing White House efforts.

There are always excuses like the economy and the push for healthcare; but it does not excuse a failure to make a better effort. And with the losses in both houses of Congress universally expected this November the maximum time of strength for the Obama Administration has been squandered to an inexplicable extent. It is time for them to make good and get the vacancies in the justice system filled while they still can. The bonus is it is a move that would actually please and fire up their base.

UPDATE: A reader has conveyed off blog some information stated to be more up to date (even though the Federal Courts site I linked said it was current as of today’s date) and I want to post it here.

1. While the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts lists the number of vacancies as of the date of the article as either 103 http://www.uscourts.gov/JudgesAndJudgeships/JudicialVacancies.aspx (used by bmaz) or 104 http://www.uscourts.gov/JudgesAndJudgeships/JudicialVacancies/CurrentJudicialVacancies.aspx by my count after taking into account last week’s confirmations, as of the date of the article there were only 99 openings (as matters stand presently at least 3 more vacancies will occur later this month) although I have not checked to confirm that the confirmed circuit court and district court nominees have in fact taken their oath of office for their new positions (as Justice Kagan did on the 7th following her confirmation on the 5th). If the new judges have not taken their oaths of office, one could always argue that the positions for which they were confirmed are still vacant.

2. There are only 40 pending nominations http://judiciary.senate.gov/nominations/111thCongressJudicialNominations/Materials111thCongress.cfm not 48.

Another site which may be useful and which appears to have up to date information is here: http://judicialnominations.org/

I will admit, I took my figures straight off the Federal Courts site and did not go count and tabulate districts and circuits individually. I don’t know which set of figures are the most accurate, so I am leaving them both here. Quite frankly it does not change the point of my post or conclusions one iota; I think it all demonstrates a problem with the Administration taking advantage of the opportunity to fill vacancies in the Federal bench (it is especially worse if there are really only 40 current nominees instead of 48 as I had).


Judge Bolton Enjoins Arizona Immigration Law

I am at the downtown court complex in Phoenix this morning for other matters but have obtained a copy of Judge Bolton’s decision in United States of America v. State of Arizona, the most significant of the multiple litigations against the controversial Arizona Immigration law, known as SB 1070. In a nutshell, the most critical and important parts of the law have all been enjoined – i.e. have been stayed pending further litigation.

The full written decision is here.

The summary, as written by Judge Bolton, is:

Applying the proper legal standards based upon well-established precedent, the Court finds that the United States is likely to succeed on the merits in showing that the following Sections of S.B. 1070 are preempted by federal law:

Portion of Section 2 of S.B. 1070 – A.R.S. § 11-1051(B): requiring that an officer make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of a person stopped, detained or arrested if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully present in the United States, and requiring verification of the immigration status of any person arrested prior to releasing that person

Section 3 of S.B. 1070 – A.R.S. § 13-1509: creating a crime for the failure to apply for or carry alien registration papers

Portion of Section 5 of S.B. 1070 – A.R.S. § 13-2928(C): creating a crime for an unauthorized alien to solicit, apply for, or perform work

Section 6 of S.B. 1070 – A.R.S. § 13-3883(A)(5): authorizing the warrantless arrest of a person where there is probable cause to believe the person has committed a public offense that makes the person removable from the United States

The Court also finds that the United States is likely to suffer irreparable harm if the Court does not preliminarily enjoin enforcement of these Sections of S.B. 1070 and that the balance of equities tips in the United States’ favor considering the public interest. The Court therefore issues a preliminary injunction enjoining the enforcement of the portion of Section 2 creating A.R.S. § 11-1051(B), Section 3 creating A.R.S. § 13-1509, the portion of Section 5 creating A.R.S. § 13-2928(C), and Section 6 creating A.R.S. § 13-3883(A)(5).

The decision is very well taken and written. It should be noted that this is not a final decision on the merits, but only a ruling on questions of preliminary injunction on enforcement of the law. While Bolton has not enjoined the entire law, what she has done effectively guts any ability of the State of Arizona and its law enforcement agents to utilize the statute for the purpose intended.

I will also note that I have known and had experience with Judge Bolton for the better part of two decades going back to her term as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge; she is bright and not a wild card in the least; reserved although not conservative. She writes sound decisions and is not prone to being overruled. For these reasons, and from a quick reading of her analysis here, I think she is on very solid ground and this decision bodes well for the future, both in the 9th Circuit and Supreme Court. Again, however, although this is a very good read as to where Judge Bolton will go in her final decision, there is still formal litigation on the merits to follow prior to reaching the appellate levels.

All in all a good day here at the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix Arizona.


Final Jeopardy Answer: Something That Doesn’t Obstruct or Impede Justice

Alex, I’m going with – “What is getting a prosecutor fired for not complying with your political agenda?”

The investigation (not of the U. S. Attorney firings despite misleading headlines) into the Iglesias firing is done. bmaz is ready to change his name to Carnac and Holder’s Department of Justice has shot off a letter-ary masterpiece to  the House Judiciary Committee (HJC).  As per Carnac’s bmaz’s predictions, no charges.

What bmaz could not have predicted, but did link to in his post, is the actual content of the letter sent to Conyers.  I don’t think anyone would have predicted the cavalier way in which Holder’s DOJ reaches its seemingly predetermined decision, while providing a roadmap to other legislators who’d also like to get a prosecutor fired for political convenience. Dannehy and Holder explain to Members of Congress – if a Federal prosecutor isn’t filing or refraining from filing the cases you want, feel free to covertly conspire to get him fired. As long as you don’t make any misguided attempt to “influence” him before you get him fired, you’re good to go. Oh, and btw, phone calls to him at home to fume over his handling – not to worry, those doesn’t count as an attempt to influence.

Stripped and shorn, Holder and Dannehy have said –

1. We aren’t gonna investigate anything but Iglesias and we aren’t saying why:  “The investigative team also determined that the evidence did not warrant expanding the scope of the investigation beyond the removal of Iglesias.”

WHAT EVIDENCE? They freakin didn’t expand the scope of the investigation to see what evidence there was, then they decide, oh well, we don’t have any of the evidence we didn’t look for so we shouldn’t look for it since we don’t have it … whatever.

2. Hey, yeah, Domenici DID make a contact to smack on Iglesias about the handling of a matter currently in front of the USA’s office but:   “The evidence about the call developed in the course of Ms. Dannehy’s investigation, however, was insufficient to establish an attempt to pressure Mr. Iglesias to accelerate his charging decisions.”

So similar to the lack of intent to torture – I mean, if Domenici in good faith thought he was just gathering intel on the status of political prosecutions … um, let’s move on.

3. Instead of trying influence Iglesias, Holder and Dannehy think that Domenici *just* got Iglesias fired for not pursuing political bias in his prosecutions. “The weight of the evidence established not an attempt to influence but rather an attempt to remove David Iglesias from office, in other words, to eliminate the possibility of any future action or inaction by him.”

4. This, they say, is fine. Seriously. They say there’s nothing DOJ can do about it. It’s no problem for politicians to get DOJ lawyers fired for not being political lapdogs. But to be fair, they then finish up by saying both, “In closing, it is important to emphasize that Attorney General Holder is committed to ensuring that partisan political considerations play no role in the law enforcement decisions of the Department” and (bc that wasn’t really the closing after all) “The Attorney General remains deeply dismayed by the OIG/OPR findings related to politicization of the Department’s actions, and has taken steps to ensure those mistakes will not be repeated.”

HUH? They’ve just said it is perfectly legal for politicians to get USAs who won’t do their political bidding fired by covert contacts with the WH, but Holder is  “committed” to ensuring partisan political considerations play no role at DOJ? WTH?  I guess if you put those two concepts together and held them in your mind for long, you’d end up committed too.

5. Anyway, they pull all of this off by giving a Bybee-esque review of “18 U.S.C. § 1503 [that] punishes anyone [at least, anyone the DOJ selectively decides to prosecute] who ‘corruptly . . . influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.” It’s a simple thing – according to Holder and Dannehy,  Domenici didn’t try to “influence” Iglesias, he just had Iglesias fired.   Which obviously isn’t an attempt to obstruct or impede.  I mean, there’s nothing that *doesn’t impede* a case like getting the prosecutor handling it fired.

They also explain to us that they can’t go after Domenici for trying to get, then getting, Iglesias fired – at least, not under 18 USC 1503, because that section “penalizes only forward-looking conduct.” So Domenici would have to be doing something that would involve forward-looking conduct. And after all, as they just said (see 3 above) Domenici wasn’t trying “in other words, to eliminate the possibility of any future action or inaction by [Iglesias].” Oh, except for, you know, they actually say in the letter that’s exactly what Domenici WAS doing. Trying to affect future action or inaction – in a forward-looking way with his forward-looking conduct.

This clarifies so many things.  Who knew, until now, that the only person who got things right during the Saturday Night Massacre was Robert Bork?

Nixon wrote the first act in DOJ’s current play (which is only fair, since he also wrote their anthem that it’s not illegal if the President does it) when he arranged for the firing of prosecutors who were bugging him, but in response to a livid Congressional response, using words like impeachment and obstruction, said:

“…[I]n all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life that I’ve welcomed this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President’s a crook. Well, I’m not a crook!”

And now Dannehy and Holder have made that chapter and verse – nothing wrong with firing some prosecutors if they aren’t playing politics.  Poor Karl Rove – so much trouble could have been avoided if he had just known that a Democratic administration’s DOJ would take the position that it would be perfectly ok for him to get Bush to fire Fitzgerald (something that apparently made even Buscho lawyers Gonzales and Miers flinch) – no obstruction, no impeding – as long as Rove never tried to “influence” the prosecutor first.

And now DOJ prosecutors now know exactly how things work. It’s been spelled out. No one will try to influence them. It’s just that if they aren’t making Obama’s favorite politicians and fundraisers happy, well – their career may have a little accident.

With AGeewhiz’s like Holder,  we can rest easy.  Gonzales may have been afraid to come out and state DOJ’s policy plainly. He never quite coughed out the admission that it is DOJ policy that Republican Senators who conspire with the Republican WH to get prosecutors fired for not carrying out the Republican Senator’s political agenda are acting well within their rights. Holder is not nearly so timid.  He’s spelled it out. Prosecutors are fair game for Congresspersons, at least those with the right WH ties.

I guess we should be grateful he hasn’t handed out paintball guns to Democratic legislators and encouraged them to mark the weak links in his legal herd – the ones that haven’t been compliant enough to keep their jobs.

At least, not yet.

And besides, haven’t we already learned what Holder just told Conyers in that letter?

Firing the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 didn’t impede or obstruct the attacks on the rule of law one little bit.

Update: On the good news front – Happy Day fatster!


Shocking Result In Dannehy US Attorney Purgegate Scandal!

As several folks have noticed in comments, the results are in from the Nick and Nora Dannehy DOJ investigation into the US Attorney firings by the Bush/Cheney Administration. And, shockingly, the Obama/Holder Department of Justice just cannot find any conduct, not one single instance, worthy of criminal prosecution.

From the official six page letter from DOJ Main’s AAG, Ronald Welch, making the belated and pitiful report to Judiciary Chairman John Conyers,

This supplements our earlier response to your letter of October 2, 2008, which requested information about the appointment of Assistant United States Attorney Nora R. Dannehy of the District of Connecticut to detennine if criminal charges are warranted based on certain findings in the public report of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) (collectively OIG/OPR) entitled “An Investigation into the Removal of Nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006” (Report). We are sending identical responses to the other Members who joined in your letter to us. As more fully explained below, Ms. Dannehy has detennined that no criminal charges are warranted with respect to this matter.

…..

In closing, it is important to emphasize that Attorney General Holder is committed to ensuring that partisan political considerations play no role in the law enforcement decisions of the Department. In this instance, Ms. Dannehy, a long time career prosecutor, was asked only to assess the possible criminality of the actions described in the OIG/OPR report, to conduct such additional investigation as necessary to make that assessment, and to determine whether anyone made prosecutable false statements to Congress or OIG/OPR. The Attorney General appreciates the work of Ms. Dannehy and her investigative team and has accepted her recommendation that criminal prosecution is not warranted.

The Attorney General remains deeply dismayed by the OIG/OPR findings related to politicization of the Department’s actions, and has taken steps to ensure those mistakes will not be repeated. The Attorney General also appreciates the work of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility on this matter.

We hope that this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we can provide additional assistance regarding this or any other matter.

The whole letter is here and speaks for itself if you care to read it.

This is entirely what anybody with a lick of sense should have expected from the forward looking modus operandi of the Obama Administration. The one note I would make is that Dannehy’s “investigation” was never a full fledged inquiry into the entire matter; the focus was set at, and remained, on David Iglesias’ complaint, which was not phrased all that compellingly by Iglesias to start with, and was further muddled by the antics of Scott Bloch. Little but lip service was given to the remainder of the sordid picture of Purgegate. You might remember Scott Bloch, the “professional” Iglesias was so sure would do the right thing and get to the bottom of the abuse engendered upon Iglesias.

In other news, the Obama/Holder DOJ recently announced they have no problem with Scott Bloch getting off with probation on his criminal plea of guilt.

The Obama White House loves tidy little packages, and they have clearly wrapped one up here. Any more questions about how the big John Durham “preliminary review” will come out?

Coming late in the day (h/t Fatster) is the somewhat weak and ineffectual response from Judiciary Chairman John Conyers. Acceptance and resignation continue to rule the day. Every day.

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Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/department-of-justice/page/18/