Let’s cook: Drug Trafficking and the Federal Death Penalty

Today, in remarks in New Hampshire, and via the White House website, the President announced an opioid prevention and enforcement plan and repeated his previous suggestions about imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking.  That issue has garnered significant attention, though it is not clear whether he will propose any new death penalty to federal criminal law.

The President often speaks in grandiose and vague terms, so it is difficult to know what he means by a death penalty “for drug traffickers.”  His language on this issue seems to be the very species of flumadiddle that nearly always characterizes his public speech on matters of complex policy.

Quite possibly, what he has meant in other remarks is a death penalty option in cases where a dealer distributes to a person who then subsequently dies from the drug received as part of the transaction.  The President did not elaborate on this today, though the White House announcement of the plan says that the Justice Department would seek the death penalty “where appropriate under current law.”  But the President also said today that DOJ is “working very hard” on changing the law.  Nothing more specific, naturally.

Several issues come to mind.

First, the idea of a death penalty connected to drug trafficking is not at all outrageous or even unusual.  Several provisions of federal criminal law already provide for this (the firearms statutes, the CCE/drug kingpin law, the drive-by shooting law, and even the racketeering laws, like VICAR).  Moreover, Congress in 1994 beefed up the capital punishment provisions for CCE/kingpin-related crimes in the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA).  See 18 U.S.C. 3591(b).  Indeed, a drug kingpin — Juan Raul Garza — is one of only three people executed by the federal government in the modern death penalty era (he was executed a little over a week after the Government executed Timothy McVeigh).

I understand the President to be demanding stronger enforcement of those laws.  But to suggest, as he did today, that the country maybe is “not ready” for a capital drug trafficking law suggests either that he does not know that current law already covers this ground, or that he has an unusual new capital drug trafficking law somewhere up his sleeve (is that what he meant when he said that DOJ is working to change the law?).

Second, if a new capital drug trafficking law was adopted, what would it look like?  The idea that the act of engaging in a drug transaction in which the recipient dies would be punishable by death — particularly where the victim’s death is reasonably foreseeable — is not as outrageous as it may seem.

The idea could be based on a fairly standard theory of felony murder — death resulting from the commission or attempted commission of the underlying drug trafficking felony.  And it would be consistent with the theory of non-capital death-resulting penalties used not only in the some of the federal statutes mentioned above, but also those contained in the core drug offense penalty statutes.  See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1); 21 U.S.C. 960.  Those statutes could be amended to include death as a penalty for the death-resulting conduct.

This general idea could, however, raise significant questions of causation and culpability, depending upon how the law is drafted.  Who is the cause of the victim’s death: the street-level dealer?  The distributor?  The manufacturer?  The victim?  When does the chain of causation between the underlying felony and the death end? (but see this earlier post on one of the federal statutes punishing death-resulting drug activity).  Would it matter that the victim took the drugs voluntarily?  That might matter to FDPA enforcement, because one of the mitigating factors listed in section 3592(b) is that “the victim consented to the criminal conduct that resulted in the victim’s death.”  A new  statute could also raise questions about Eighth Amendment proportionality under the rule of Enmund v. Florida, if the dealer/trafficker’s culpability is too attenuated from the death (though I would argue that Tison v. Arizona would likely provide an important counterweight to any Enmund claim, where the dealer/trafficker could be said to be a major participant with reckless disregard for human life, which may be especially true when trafficking in certain opioids).

So there are some open questions raised by the idea of a new capital drug trafficking statute, and perhaps that has made the White House hesitant to propose one.

Finally, even assuming that the President’s interest in seeking more death penalties in drug cases is desirable, and that he is simply asking for stronger enforcement of current law without any new additions to the prosecutorial menu, publicly pressuring the Justice Department to seek the death penalty is a dangerous game to play.

A President should be able to make his law enforcement priorities known, including his support for the death penalty.  Every President shifts DOJ resources to those areas he wishes to prioritize (gangs, guns, corporate crime, etc.).  Still, as I have previously written in the context of the President’s public statements about the Saipov case, whenever the President appears to be putting political pressure on the Justice Department to seek the death penalty, that pressure can create the impression that the DOJ’s death penalty review process is a sham.  It undermines public confidence in what should be a serious and apolitical review based on the facts and circumstances of each case.  That confidence, and the sober nature of DOJ death penalty protocol enforcement, is critical to the continued legitimacy of the federal death penalty.

To be fair, today’s remarks do not raise quite the same concerns — advocating a death penalty generally for a category of federal offenders is not the same as advocating it in a specific case without having all of the available facts and evidence.  And the White House’s statement that the DOJ “will” seek the death penalty “where appropriate under current law” may suggest that the review process will remain objective.  But, it also raises a concern: does the White House mean to say that the DOJ will seek the death penalty where the statutory scheme provides for it?  Or does the White House mean that the DOJ will seek the death penalty only where current law allows it and the DOJ concludes from its internal review that death is an appropriate punishment based on the specific facts and circumstances of the case?  Big difference.

The President’s proclivity for public bombast when wanting to appear “tough” can have negative consequences for the policies he claims to support, transforming tough talk into presidential weakness.  His counter-opioid plan has some admirable components.  They deserve a serious but careful defense.


Trump and Thomas on guns, after Parkland

Gun law and policy dominated much of this past week’s news.  While the President expressed interest in supporting new measures, he also returned to some of the more extreme gun rights rhetoric that we saw during the campaign.  Meanwhile, little-noticed, another Second Amendment voice emerged.

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump took positions on gun rights that call into question the reliability of his views (his campaign website links to gun policy are now gone, but see the contemporaneous reporting here and here).  He apparently believed that “law-abiding people should be able to own the firearm of their choice.  The government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.”  Although he asserted that current laws should be enforced, he also objected to gun bans.  I covered this ground during the campaign, noting the incoherence of his position.

The President announced this week that he has directed the Attorney General to craft regulations making bump fire stocks unlawful.  Set aside for the moment that a President who has boasted about undoing the regulatory state is now pushing new regulations (rather than legislation, which he could recommend).  The idea appears to be based on the proposition that the accessory functionally turns a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic one (a “machine gun”), and thus into a weapon that is already banned.  See 18 U.S.C. 922(o).  Whether done through new legislation or a new regulation, effectively, the President is now supporting a ban on a specific type of firearm, which differs markedly from the line that he peddled during the campaign.

The President also stated this week that he was open to legislation expanding background checks for firearms purchases (NYT coverage here).  During the campaign, as reported, Trump criticized efforts to expand background checks, saying that we should not expand a broken system and even promising to undo President Obama’s executive action on background checks (see here).  Perhaps his tepidly-expressed support this week will depend upon the specifics of forthcoming legislation.  But the real test of the President’s mettle on this issue will come when he is asked to back a measure that the NRA does not support.

Finally, he endorsed the idea of arming school teachers and staff (see WaPo here).  This idea may be worthy of consideration, but it is not a gun restriction. It will not reduce the number of guns available, nor would it likely deter many school shooters (e.g., those who expect, even hope, to be killed during their attack).  Moreover, whatever the merits of the idea with respect to school safety (and there are some), it is hard to see how this idea would protect Americans from gun violence in places that are not schools, or how it will help to curb gun trafficking, or gun crimes committed by street gangs or other criminal organizations that regularly employ and stockpile firearms, including military-style weaponry.

Another strong gun-rights view, however, appeared this week and was largely ignored.  Earlier in the week, Justice Thomas issued an opinion dissenting from the denial of certiorari in Silvester v. Becerra, a Second Amendment case involving the constitutionality of California’s 10-day waiting period for existing gun owners.  Repeating assertions he has made in earlier cases, Justice Thomas lamented the Court’s treatment of the Second Amendment, referring to it as a “disfavored right” and a “constitutional orphan.”  He correctly noted that the Court has not heard argument in a Second Amendment case in eight years, and has not granted a case assessing the constitutionality of a gun law in 10 years (since D.C. v. Heller).

Obviously, Justice Thomas’s several pleas to this effect have not persuaded the Court.  In fact, I wonder whether recent events will further dampen the likelihood that the Court will show interest in reviewing gun restrictions in the near future.  But his observations demand attention.  After all, it only takes four votes to grant.  So the question now is: will the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch ever agree on taking a new Second Amendment case?  What’s holding them back?

Since Heller, gun rights have become significantly liberalized in many states.  The practical effect of liberalization is that, even if courts restrict Second Amendment rights, the states remain free to keep gun rights broader than they would be pursuant to the Second Amendment.  Of course, Congress could mitigate some of this liberalization with federal legislation.  The most meaningful fights over gun rights therefore may not be found in Second Amendment litigation in the courts, important though that litigation may be.  Rather, the most meaningful battles may well be in Congress and in legislative bodies around the country that have seen fit to liberalize gun rights.  Still, close and pervasive gun regulation exists in America, and it is that regulation that is the subject of so many Second Amendment challenges.  Problem is, is this the right time for the Court to consider striking down gun regulations?

The mere fact of a political battle over individual rights does not necessarily mean that courts will stay on the sidelines (consider, for example, the same-sex marriage issue).  And rights are meant to be safe from the whims of political majorities.  Still, for now, perhaps the Court is content to leave its substantive Second Amendment jurisprudence where it stands after Heller, and leave the remainder to the political process, state constitutional law, and federal courts.  But if that is true, would it not prove Justice Thomas’s point?

One of Heller’s virtues was its recognition that Second Amendment rights are not unlimited; that a Nation devoted to the possession of guns for lawful self-defense and defense of others can also be a Nation where those same guns are sensibly regulated.  Imagine that, rather than avoiding the matter, the Court granted multiple Second Amendment cases and simply read Heller narrowly, clarifying the standard of review and applying it to protect most gun regulation.  That may not please Justice Thomas, and it would certainly result in amplified calls from some gun-rights advocates for appointment of “pro-gun” judges.  But a more fully developed Second Amendment jurisprudence could be helpful to the ongoing political debate about gun rights by clarifying the scope of the Constitution’s protection.

Indeed, a more fully developed Second Amendment case law could (depending upon its direction) have the effect of making absolutist Second Amendment rhetoric even less acceptable, pushing extreme gun rights talk further into the fringe and easing the legal path for sensible new criminal laws to prevent and punish gun violence.  That result would prove even more powerful if it came from the Court’s conservatives.  And for his part, the President could abandon his own loose rhetoric and return conservatism to its more natural place of balance, away from the extreme: that is, a decent respect for the tradition of gun rights tempered with a recognition that sensible gun regulation bears an important relationship to controlling crime and violence.

Investigations, privileges, and Bannon’s gamble on contempt

On Tuesday, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon refused to answer questions from the House Intelligence Committee concerning his time in the Trump transition and on the President’s staff.  He was immediately subpoenaed, and required to appear again yesterday.  As Politico reports here, he communicated to the Committee that its demand was unreasonable.  He further indicated that he would be working with the White House to determine whether it would be asserting executive privilege to prevent him from testifying.  Chief of Staff John Kelly indicated on Wednesday, however, that the White House had not asserted executive privilege on Bannon’s behalf, contradicting some earlier understandings.  See The Hill report here.

If Kelly is right, then Bannon’s action fits a pattern of witnesses in the congressional Russia investigations simply choosing, on their own, when they will answer questions and when they will not, with no apparent consequences.

Several problems emerge from this saga.

1.  Bannon cannot assert executive privilege.  Only the President can.  Bannon’s apparent assertion Tuesday (if Kelly was right) and again yesterday, is based on what I call preemptive executive privilege.  This is when a witness hypothesizes that an answer might possibly implicate executive privilege, even though it has not been invoked, so the witness will preemptively refuse to answer based on the future possibility of a presidential invocation.  This is problematic, and Congress should put a stop to it.  Unless there is a clear basis for a legitimate assertion of the privilege—in which case there is an argument that Congress should be sensitive to the President’s constitutional prerogatives—Congress should demand that the witness answer or, if not already under subpoena, be subpoenaed and then held in contempt for any refusal to comply.  In most cases, Congress’s prerogatives will outweigh these preemptive assertions.

2.  Bannon was also issued a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in the Special Counsel’s criminal probe, though apparently he is now being allowed to meet with federal prosecutors outside of the grand jury environment.  Bannon is reportedly saying that he will tell the Special Counsel “everything,” (see Daily Beast coverage here) though he apparently believes he does not have to answer to Congress (yet).  Bannon may be relying on an oft-heard claim about executive privilege and its basis in the separation of powers—it can be invoked against Congress but not in a probe within the executive branch.

This view misapprehends the privilege as it applies (to the extent that it does) before Congress.  First, it is wrong to suggest that the mere invocation of the privilege in a congressional investigation is per se adequate to enforce it.  While it is true that executive privilege has its foundations in the separation of powers, it is not true that any invocation of it in the courts or before Congress is necessarily effective.  The Supreme Court has never held that a congressional investigation must yield to a claim of executive privilege, and there is precedent for the opposite conclusion.  See, e.g., House Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53 (D.D.C. 2008).  Of course, usually these kinds of disputes are resolved through accommodation, and that may well happen here.  Perhaps it should. But Congress could seek enforcement of the Bannon subpoena even if there is an invocation of the privilege.

My guess is that Bannon is betting against that.  Bannon clearly knows that he cannot avoid the Special Counsel through a claim of executive privilege, see United States v. Nixon, and yet I would imagine that Bannon is counting on Congress not seeking enforcement of the subpoena.  He has ample reason to bet on that, given this Congress’s lax enforcement of its prerogatives with other witnesses.  Or perhaps he is ultimately counting on a process of accommodation.  So, assuming arguendo that there is an invocation of the privilege on which Bannon could theoretically rely, the question is whether Congress will have the institutional backbone to enforce it, and call Bannon’s bluff.  (On the other hand, if the White House refuses to assert the privilege, perhaps Bannon will comply; or perhaps he will continue to resist and simply gamble on non-enforcement).

3.  Bannon refused to answer Tuesday and was subpoenaed.  On the spot.  And yet other witnesses from the Trump campaign have refused to answer questions and were not subjected to a subpoena.

In particular, consider that Donald Trump Jr. recently appeared before the Committee and refused to answer questions about his discussions with his father, raising a bizarre claim of attorney-client privilege (which has been largely debunked, see here).  Even if the assertion was legitimate, the attorney-client privilege, unlike executive privilege, is not a constitutionally-based privilege, and Congress could simply rule that the privilege should yield to the need for disclosure of the information it seeks.  If that is the case, then why did Trump Jr. not receive a subpoena?  Why has the Committee not compelled him, and others who have balked at answering certain questions, to appear again before the Committee and give the requested information or be subject to a contempt prosecution (as, apparently, is now being contemplated for Bannon)?

Investigative power is meaningless unless Congress is willing to compel testimony and punish non-compliance; otherwise, witnesses have no incentive to play ball with Congress.  The contempt power is one of the most important tools available to Congress.  And recent history shows that congressional Republicans know how to use it (ask Lois Lerner and Eric Holder).

If a Republican Congress can hold Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to give testimony after a bungled assertion of the Fifth Amendment privilege (a constitutional privilege, and one that was later validated by the DOJ), then surely it can demand answers after an absurd assertion of the attorney-client privilege or a wholly preemptive assertion of executive privilege that probably doesn’t apply anyway.  If, like me, you think that it is critical that Congress investigate Russian active measures and take legislative steps to thwart further Russian influence, then it seems clear that Congress needs full information about Russia’s activities in 2016.  These witnesses may have important and useful information, and they should be required to give it, in aid of the legislative function.

The failure to insist upon important information from witnesses during a critical investigation offers yet another example of the damage that can be done to constitutional government when legislators become slaves to party loyalty and/or the president of their party.  Republicans in Congress must have a fuller appreciation for their role in the separation of powers and their institutional prerogatives (Democrats had the same problem during the last Administration).  They seem to have finally awoken to this notion when dealing with Steve Bannon.  But will they hold his feet to the fire?  And if so, what about the others who have simply taken a pass on cooperating?


Checks and the dangers of political hero worship

For those who revere the new tax legislation, December 20, 2017 was a memorable day.  To those who revere the constitutional separation of powers, it was also a memorable day — but for all of the wrong reasons.

After passage of the tax bill in each chamber, but before signing it, the President hosted Republican members of Congress at the White House.  Had they gathered for a traditional bill signing, or perhaps a holiday mixer full of lively conversation and egg nog, the gathering would have been relatively unremarkable.  What transpired there, however, was, to a constitutionalist, utterly chilling.  Speaker after speaker sung the praises of President Trump (see this WaPo piece). This kind of praise may actually reflect a deification of the President, and the presidency itself, that troubles modern constitutional politics and complicates the separation of powers.

Now, it is important not to overstate the problem.  The Constitution requires that the President and Congress agree on legislation before it can become law.  It is not constitutionally problematic that the White House and the Congress have some meeting of the minds on legislation.  Nor is it constitutionally problematic, or even uncommon, that members of Congress compliment the President when they are in agreement with him on some matter of public importance.  This happens in other presidencies, too.  But this event went beyond the kind of constitutionally necessary departmental duality that characterizes lawmaking pursuant to Article I, section 7.  And these were not merely kind words or gestures of respect.  Rather, it was the kind of effusive hero worship that has become all-too-common in the President’s orbit.  When it comes from Congress, it is a special problem.  Congress is not supposed to be in the President’s orbit.

It is common to hear talk of Donald Trump’s demands for loyalty.  Loyalty is one thing; supporting the boss publicly is one thing.  This is different.  Trump seems to prefer, if not demand, gushing, melodramatic praise that treats him as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity.  All that is good flows from him; all that is not is someone else’s fault.  One wonders whether these men and women ever spoke of Lincoln or Reagan the way that they spoke about President Trump last week.

There are, of course, practical, even strategic, reasons for this kind of public worship — assuming one does not actually worship President Trump.

First, those who work for the President may do this because it may be what he expects of them and anything less would jeopardize their position.  (consider the similarly pathetic cabinet meeting earlier this year, which one reporter described as the “weirdest cabinet meeting ever.”  See here.).  But this would not explain such adulation from a member of Congress, unless the member is under the impression that he works for the President — a deeply ignorant notion but one that is not at all off of the table in the modern Congress when it is controlled by the same party as the President.

Second, one may offer flattery for the purposes of extracting some benefit.  It must be one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington: if you want something from President Trump, simply go on television and talk about him as if he is a god.  Perhaps, then, it was this second explanation that applies to the tax bill gathering last week.  After all, what better way to secure the President’s support for all manner of other policies than to lavish him with adoration?  If so, it is politically understandable, but no less troubling to those of us who still regard the constitutional separation of powers as worthy of preservation.  Here’s why.

The deification of the presidency only amplifies the powers of the executive at the expense of others in the constitutional system.  This is inconsistent with the Constitution’s distribution of power and is especially unnerving when the President is already prone to unreasonable self-aggrandizement.  It also sends a signal that Republicans in Congress have now officially anchored themselves to the President.  That makes it all the more difficult to resist the President when he comes calling, all the more difficult to publicly disagree with the President, and all the more difficult to serve as an effective constitutional check on the President.  Critical checks — rejecting legislative recommendations, conducting effective oversight, and engaging in meaningful investigation of executive wrongdoing — become casualties when Congress deifies the President.

This latter point is especially important for Republicans.  They already face significant obstacles in the upcoming midterm elections.  But one of the most potent campaign themes of the 2018 cycle could be related to checks: candidates (mostly Democrats) vowing that if they are elected, they will work to be an effective check on this President and Republicans in Congress who refuse to counter him.

If Republicans in Congress are perceived as mere errand boys for the President, incapable of holding him accountable or publicly disavowing him, they will be handing their opponents a potentially powerful argument for making a change in congressional control.  Republicans who fully embrace the President — and who must commit to all of the embarrassing adulation that embracing him seems to require — may be counting on a strong economy to bolster their chances of re-election.  And running in a Republican primary without praising the President may be especially difficult for many Republicans, depending upon where they are running.  But with every word of praise, they aggrandize the powers of the presidency, perpetuate glorification of the office and of Trump himself, and make themselves increasingly vulnerable to a campaign predicated on the importance of having checks in the system.

When President Obama held office, congressional Republicans used to talk a good game about the separation of powers.  Since President Trump’s inauguration, I cannot recall the last time I heard congressional Republicans as a group advocate for a robust separation of powers.  To be sure, some have resisted the lure of a deified President Trump.  But on the whole, the separation of powers has been relegated to second- or even third-class status, giving way instead to the push for a shared legislative agenda and, worse still, party loyalty for its own sake.  Last week’s display of pathetic obsequiousness was simply the latest, and maybe most emphatic, sign yet that Republicans in Congress have abandoned their constitutional role in favor of worshiping at Trumpism’s altar.

Saipov and the federal death penalty

The Government has filed a formal criminal complaint in the case of Sayfullo Saipov, who allegedly killed eight people and injured about a dozen more on Halloween by driving his truck through a bike lane in New York City.  Although this is not an indictment, and the indictment could include additional statutory violations, the complaint focuses on one of the material support for terrorism statutes (18 U.S.C. 2339B) and the motor vehicles statute (18 U.S.C. 33).  Interestingly, the complaint also alleges a violation of section 34.  That is critical, because although the material support statutes do not provide for the death penalty, section 34 explicitly does, and here the violation of section 33 resulted in the death of a person.

Based on this, and what will almost surely appear in a future indictment, there seems to be a very high probability that the Government will seek the death penalty against Saipov.  In fact, now, I would say that it is almost certain.

Yesterday, the President tweeted that Saipov “SHOULD GET THE DEATH PENALTY.”  The President then tweeted again today about Saipov’s case, “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”  (Politico has analysis here).  That is a sentiment shared by many, and under ordinary circumstances, it would be an unremarkable assertion in a terrorism case involving so many killings.  The problem, however, is that the President is not supposed to be the guy at the end of the bar.  The President oversees the federal prosecutorial infrastructure and the very people who must make the decision of whether to seek the death penalty against Saipov.  Why is that a problem?  Here is why, and it’s different than the concerns others have raised.

The federal death penalty is (or, at least should be) a point of pride for the Justice Department.  It is not used often, but when it is used, it tends to be reserved for truly heinous and highly aggravated killings.  And the Saipov case, based on what is currently known, looks to fit that bill.  Moreover, the federal death penalty provides substantial process to ensure that the decision whether to seek the death penalty is fair and objective, based on a variety of relevant factors.  Federal capital defendants receive learned counsel, and per the DOJ’s death penalty protocol, they have the opportunity to make a presentation (through counsel) to DOJ officials who review the United States Attorney’s submission of the case.  The process is not rushed, nor is it arbitrary.  Some cases, though death-eligible, may not be sufficiently aggravated to warrant a decision to seek; and even in a highly aggravated case, the Attorney General may decide not to seek because of substantial mitigating evidence, including mental state evidence.  The Department goes to great lengths to ensure that the threshold seek/no seek decision is deliberate, informed, and fair.

By stating his insistence upon a death penalty for Saipov, however, the President may be sending a signal to General Sessions that Sessions must authorize a capital prosecution, regardless of the mitigating evidence (if any).  Now, it is likely that Sessions would be inclined to seek in this case anyway, and from all public accounts of the alleged offense, it would seem to fit the mold of a federal death penalty case — highly aggravated, implicating national government interests, with minimal persuasive mitigation.  But the whole point of the protocol review process is to vet the case and determine whether the death penalty is appropriate, in light of the facts and circumstances of the individual case.

In other words, my fear is that the President has given Sessions little room on the “no seek” side of the decision-making process.  This is particularly true for Sessions, who has been publicly humiliated by the President in recent months and who functions in a world where public disagreement with — indeed, failure to worship — the President is treated as a great sin.  One might reasonably ask whether Sessions feels that he is in any position to take a different side from the President on anything.

My even greater fear is that Saipov’s lawyers will challenge the fairness and legitimacy of the review process by claiming that the fix was in and that once the President tweeted, Saipov never stood a real chance of avoiding the death penalty because the Attorney General’s hands were politically tied.  While capital defendants ordinarily do not challenge the process by which the seek decision was made, I am concerned that the President may be inviting new litigation about that process.  That is unfortunate, and unfair to the career prosecutors, as well as political appointees at Justice, acting in good faith to apply the protocol and make sound decisions in very ugly, and often complex, cases.  It is especially unfortunate in a case where the President’s sentiment was wholly unnecessary — the Attorney General may already have been inclined to favor the death penalty without prompting by the President.

I don’t want to overstate the concern.  Perhaps the President’s tweets will not matter in the Saipov case, and perhaps the legitimacy of the decision-making process will not be challenged.  After all, as I have said, it is not as if this would be a weak case for the death penalty in the absence of the President’s tweets.  Still, the President’s tweets — however satisfying to his political base — could be perceived as influencing the Justice Department’s ability give the case an objective review, and have the effect of compromising the integrity of a process that is designed to be serious, sober, thorough, and independent.  In death penalty decision-making, those are virtues more important than speed.

Given the pressures facing the death penalty in America, it is critical that the federal system be perceived as fair and just, rather than merely efficient or fast.  For those of us trying to preserve the death penalty, and its image in American law and politics, the President is making things much harder.


“Vacationland for lawyers in love”

Last night I watched the news from Washington (the capital),

The Russians escaped while we weren’t watching them (like Russians will).

Now we’ve got all this room,

We’ve even got the moon.

And I hear the USSR will be open soon

As Vacationland for

Lawyers in love.

— Jackson Browne, “Lawyers in Love (from Lawyers in Love, Asylum Records, 1983).

Perhaps today’s news doesn’t precisely parallel all of the political and cultural phenomena that fueled Jackson Browne’s early 80s Cold War commentary, but, if you’re a lawyer (and you remember the Cold War), today was a fascinating day (“Among the human beings/ in their designer jeans/ am I the only one who hears the screams/ and the strangled cries of lawyers in love?”).

The indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were unsealed, alleging conspiracy, money laundering, and violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, among others.  The indictment is here.  Just after the President tweeted that the indictment shows there was “NO COLLUSION,” the news broke that Trump campaign national security adviser George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI when interviewed in connection with the Russian meddling investigation.  That guilty plea statement is here (via NYT).  It is riddled with references to Papadopolous’s email exchanges with individuals connected to the Russian government, as well as references to other officials (some high-ranking) in the Trump campaign who apparently knew about Papadopolous’s efforts — and who did absolutely nothing to put a stop to the apparent contacts with Russian connections.

Politico has this entry with reaction from notable legal figures.  What appears clear from the views of many experts is this: the Manafort indictment is not nearly as significant as the Papadopolous guilty plea.

Much of the difficulty with this entire episode is the hyper-focus on the word “collusion.”  Somehow, somewhere, this became a term that has defined the nature of the scandal.  But why?  It has been said before but is worth reiterating: collusion is not per se a crime.

“Collusion” is a legally-neutral term; it can refer to criminal cooperation or simply to cooperation covertly or by deception.  So although collusion is typically a term used to describe a state of affairs that is bad (that is, it is not morally neutral), its use in the present context does not, without more, connote violation of some specific criminal law.  For lawyers, what we ought to mean by “collusion” in this particular context is that someone in the Trump orbit, and more specifically in the campaign, formed an agreement to cooperate with, or to develop a relationship with, the Russian government or individuals connected to high-ranking Russian government officials for the purpose of assisting Trump in defeating Hillary Clinton.  That may nor may not be a crime, but it would seem to fit a proper understanding of “collusion.”

The extent to which that kind of agreement or relationship is a crime will vary based on the law applicable to the facts.  Still, when one examines the Papadopolous document — and then adds the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 — it is hard not to conclude that at least some in the campaign were, in fact, trying to forge such an alliance.  Again, whether that is criminal is a separate question, as is the question of whether candidate Trump himself knew anything about the activities of these lower-level actors.  But to state that there is “no evidence of collusion” is to simply turn a blind eye to the obvious, once “collusion” in this context is properly understood.

So, when you hear the President or someone in the Trump orbit say “there was no collusion,” ask whether they mean there was no criminality, or whether they mean there was no intent or effort to develop a cooperative agreement with the Russians to help Trump win and to damage Clinton.

All that said, and regardless of where one stands on the merits of the ongoing investigations, there is much to be sad about today.  I very much doubt that we would be discussing any of this, or spending enormous public time and resources on this matter, were it not for the pathological need of political campaigns to absolutely destroy their opponents in the effort to win. What we see, particularly in the Papadopolous news, is the disturbing length to which political campaigns will go in America to smear, to discredit, to ruin an opponent.  It is not new, nor is it unique to the Trump campaign.  Both parties do it.  And they spend obscene amounts of time and money on it.

True, sometimes revelations about a candidate can serve a valuable purpose, where they bear on a candidate’s competence, or ability to do the job, or reveal truly bad acts about which the public ought to be informed.  But dirt-digging ventures have routinely become a substitute for substantive debate between, and about, candidates.  The danger is that national campaigns will focus not so much on the election of those who can best govern safely and effectively under the Constitution, but simply on which candidate is able to survive total annihilation.

When these are the wages of entry into electoral politics — not just defeating your opponent, but ruining them, and spending millions and millions of dollars to do so — is it any wonder that people who are good, smart, capable, and patriotic, but imperfect, do not want to run for office?  Is it any wonder that so many good people who are currently serving no longer want to be part of the system?

Perhaps the need to annihilate our opponents proceeds directly from two additional pathologies in our contemporary politics: extreme polarization and hero worship.  I shall have more to say about that soon.  For now, fortunately, we have baseball.



New case asking the Supreme Court to abolish the death penalty

I was grateful to contribute to the Akron Law Review’s recent symposium issue on Justice Scalia’s legacy in criminal law and procedure.  My short piece, available here, analyzes Justice Scalia’s work in death penalty cases.  One of the issues I tackle has to do with the viability of judicial abolition on the post-Scalia Court.  I mention this now because a new petition has arrived at the Court in Hidalgo v. Arizona, which was featured on SCOTUSBlog this week and which offers the Court the opportunity to consider judicial abolition.   Neal Katyal is counsel of record for Hidalgo, and Katyal’s name certainly lends gravitas to the petition.

One thing about the petition irked me.  In its recitation of the facts, the petition simply says that Hidalgo “killed someone in exchange for $1,000 from a gang member.  In the course of that crime, he killed a bystander.”  Those facts are literally true, but woefully incomplete and santitized.

Yes, Hidalgo killed “someone,” but that someone had an identity: Michael Cordova, whom Hidalgo shot in the forehead.  And as the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion states, Hidalgo took the $1,000 from the gang member “without knowing Cordova or why the gang wanted him murdered.”  In other words, it was just business for Hidalgo.  The “bystander” reference is also problematic.  The “bystander” was Jose Rojas, and his death was no accident; it was not as if Rojas was walking by and was randomly struck by a bullet that had ricocheted off of a cement wall.  Hidalgo, the facts from the lower court opinion show, deliberately shot Rojas in the head to prevent him from being available as a witness.  And after Hidalgo had shot both men in the head, according to the state supreme court, Hidalgo “shot each victim five more times to ensure he died.”

To be fair, Hidalgo attaches the Arizona Supreme Court opinion as an appendix.  So the complete set of facts is literally contained in the petition, if the reader ventures to the appendix to read the state court opinion.  Still, the petition’s effort to sanitize the murders here is frustrating to read.

Substantively, the per se challenge to the death penalty is not the only issue raised in the petition.  Hidalgo leads with the claim that Arizona’s list of statutory aggravating factors — 14 of them, see Ariz. Rev. Stat. 13-751 — fail to perform the constitutionally required narrowing function because they are so numerous and broad that a defendant would be death eligible for most any first-degree murder.  It’s an interesting framing of the narrowing problem, but I am skeptical of the claim for a variety of reasons, including some identified in the Arizona Supreme Court opinion.

The question is not, “how many aggravators appear on the state’s list?”  I would argue that the Eighth Amendment does not require a numerical cut-off point.  If it did, how would we know what that cut-off point is?  Rather, the question is whether each aggravator on the list circumscribes the broader class of first-degree murderers.  The mere fact that all of the aggravators added together will apply to a broader class of murderers than any individual aggravator does not make the scheme insufficiently narrow, because all of the aggravators on the list will not apply to each case (indeed, if there were a case in which all 14 aggravators applied to the defendant, it would be hard to argue that that defendant was not deserving of death-eligibility).

In other words, one could argue, the constitutionality of the State’s narrowing procedure should be judged on an as-applied basis: once the State enumerates eligibility factors in its capital sentencing scheme, the only thing left is to determine the validity of each factor as it applies to the defendant in a given case.  If one could make what amounts to a facial challenge to the list of statutory aggravators generally, then the remedy is . . . what?  Excising some?  And if the Constitution required the State to narrow its list even further, how would the Eighth Amendment — or a court — even know which aggravators had to be excised?  What standard would be employed to effect that remedy?

It seems to me that the only way to answer those questions is to evaluate each individual aggravator for its validity.  And yet Hidalgo does not allege that any of the aggravators that apply in his case were themselves constitutionally invalid.  Curious.  The State Supreme Court, in my view, properly disposed of this claim, relying on the authority of Tuilaepa v. California, and also properly understood the distinction between eligibility and selection.

But let’s assume for the moment that Arizona’s scheme of aggravators is constitutionally overbroad.  Even if Arizona’s legislature — voluntarily, or as a result of judicial compulsion — had to further narrow its list, Hidalgo’s crime surely would fit into one or more factors on a constitutionally permissible shorter list that distinguish his crime from a first-degree murder generally.  He killed more than one person in a single criminal episode, substantially premeditated the killing of Cordova, committed the Cordova murder for pecuniary gain, and the murders were closely connected to the activities of a criminal enterprise.  It is not clear, then, that Hidalgo would escape the death penalty even if the statute was narrowed further.  Perhaps this is why he focuses on the breadth of the statutory list generally, rather than on the particular aggravators in his case.  Even if we assumed the invalidity of Arizona’s list, it is not difficult to imagine a constitutionally permissible list of statutory aggravators that would make Hidalgo death-eligible.

Still, keep an eye on this case.