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.

 

Advertisements

Hate crimes enforcement continues, but under-reporting remains a concern

Although some questioned whether Attorney General Sessions would make hate crime enforcement a priority, I speculated that — particularly in light of the nature of the federal hate crimes law, which requires proof of willfully-caused bodily injury or an attempt to cause bodily injury through the use of certain dangerous devices or weapons, see 18 U.S.C. 249 — those concerns were likely overstated and that General Sessions would continue robust hate crimes enforcement.  So far, this has proven to be the case.

General Sessions recently delivered these encouraging remarks at a national hate crime summit, in which he said “hate crimes are violent crimes.  No person should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship.”  Moreover, the Justice Department announced back in April the creation of a special hate crimes subcommittee as part of its Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.   And in recent months, the Civil Rights Division has announced several new hate crime indictments (see, e.g., here and here and here).

Still, less encouraging news came recently, regarding the under-reporting of hate crimes.  According to this new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 54% of violent hate crimes were not reported.  Some media coverage here and here.  There are a variety of explanations for the under-reporting, as noted in the report.

I hope that by making hate crimes an enforcement priority, the Department can incentivize greater reporting participation and provide the public, and law enforcement partners around the country, with more accurate information about the frequency of, and risks associated with, hate crime behavior.  Any comprehensive national approach to violent crime should, as the Sessions Justice Department has thus far acknowledged, include attention to bias-motivated violence.

 

 

Criminality and impeachment after the Comey firing

James Comey is, by all objective accounts, a man of integrity, intelligence, and honor.  Like all of us, he is imperfect.  And like anyone serving the public at a high level, he has perhaps made judgments — in difficult and complicated, even untenable, situations — that are subject to legitimate criticism.  No one questions the President’s power to remove him from his position as FBI Director.  The question, rather, is whether it was appropriate under the circumstances to do so.

If the President’s removal of Director Comey was based on the President’s desire to influence or impede an investigation that he disfavors, and in which he could conceivably be implicated, that raises very serious, but also very complicated, legal questions. (Do not be distracted by the President’s claim that he is not under investigation; though he may not be the target of the investigation, one who is not the target can still become ensnared or implicated in an investigation.  It is difficult to believe that investigators are not also looking — or will not eventually look — into the President’s role, what he knew, and when he knew it.)

Four questions arise: 1) does the criminal law apply to the President when he commits an act that might otherwise be criminal but that is done in the exercise of a constitutional function?; 2) assuming the criminal law would apply, can a sitting President be prosecuted while in office?; 3) assuming the President can be prosecuted while in office, would the Justice Department do so?; and 4) criminality and criminal process notwithstanding, could the president be impeached for his conduct?

I will leave specific responses to the first three questions for a subsequent post, though it is worth noting here that, as some may recall from the legal discussion surrounding the (Bill) Clinton scandals, there is some question as to whether a sitting President can be criminally prosecuted.  Some respected constitutional scholars say no, criminal prosecution must wait until the President formally leaves office (and there is substantial support in constitutional history for this view).  See, for example, Akhil Amar’s work here.  Others say doing so is constitutionally permissible.  But the question I want to next explore is this: if the President does something that is an abuse of his power, or a substantial violation of his presidential duties, or even violates the Constitution, but does not actually violate the criminal law, is impeachment available?

Lots of recent commentary has focused on 18 U.S.C. 1505, one of the federal obstruction of justice statutes.  On its face, it looks like it applies to the President’s conduct.  Problem is, federal prosecutors are instructed, based on decided cases, that an FBI investigation does not constitute a “proceeding” for purposes of this statute.  See USAM CRM 1727. If the President is to be subject to an obstruction statute, it will have to be a different one, say, 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(3) (but courts are split as to whether an FBI investigation is an “official proceeding” under this statute, and the statute requires that the person act “corruptly” — can the President be acting “corruptly” if he believes in good faith that his action was a legitimate exercise of constitutional power?).  So, proof of criminality in these circumstances is tricky.

This leads to a discussion of impeachment.  Does impeachment require the commission of a crime?

The President, according to Article II, section 4 of the Constitution, “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Treason and bribery are familiar as crimes (each has a well-established definition in criminal law).  But “other high crimes and misdemeanors” remains vague.  There is a fair amount of scholarship on impeachable offenses and I won’t endeavor to summarize it all here.  But a couple of sources are noteworthy.

Raoul Berger’s terrific book, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems, concludes that this phrase — “high crimes and misdemeanors” — was drawn not from the English criminal law but from the impeachment of the Earl of Suffolk in 1386.  He explains that use of this standard was necessary because “the objects of impeachment were beyond ordinary criminal redress.”  Whereas “misdemeanors” were private wrongs punishable by the state, “high crimes and misdemeanors” were political offenses, against the state.  Consequently, according to Berger, high crimes and misdemeanors are not derived from ordinary criminal law, but are unique to the impeachment context.

Charles Black’s excellent Impeachment: A Handbook, attempts to clarify the standard a bit by further considering the relationship between criminal law and impeachable offenses.  Black relies upon the ejusdem generis canon to evaluate how “high crimes and misdemeanors” could be like treason and bribery, but ultimately Black appears skeptical of a definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would require actual criminality (though he concedes that most actual presidential misdeeds would also be crimes).  He gives the following examples: a President announces that he will not appoint any Roman Catholic to any office.  This violates the clear command of Article VI of the Constitution, but is it criminal?  Or, suppose a President legally travels to a foreign country and conducts all business from there.  He wouldn’t be committing a crime, but surely his “gross and wanton neglect of duty,” as Black describes it, would be impeachable.  By the same token, merely committing a crime should not subject the President to impeachment, and Black gives a few examples on that ground, too.  In short, the President need not commit a defined crime to be impeached, but even if he does, mere criminality is not necessarily impeachable.

There is, then, substantial historical and scholarly authority for the proposition that a President can be impeached for abuses of office that do not formally constitute criminal offenses.

The problem for this President’s critics, of course, is that — for now, at least — neither criminal prosecution nor impeachment seems likely.

As to prosecution, again, there is the threshold problem of whether any crime has been committed under an applicable statute; the constitutional questions of whether he was simply exercising a constitutional function, and whether it is even permissible to indict or criminally try a sitting President; and even if so, the question of whether Trump’s own Justice Department would do so (which is precisely why the claims for a special counsel have been increasing).

That leaves impeachment, and only the House of Representatives can impeach the President.  Most Republicans in Congress have not exactly been profiles in courage when it comes to asserting their own prerogatives, defending the separation of powers, and resisting the charms of this President.  Efforts to distance themselves from the President have been tepid and ambiguous.  For now, congressional Republicans (generally) appear to be calculating one or both of the following: they need the President politically, and do not want to damage him; and/or, they fear the damage the President could do to them, with his Twitter account or otherwise.  The President, I suspect, knows this, which might explain his brazen, middle-finger-held-high recounting of his interactions with, and firing of, Comey.  He, too, calculates.

I do not contend here that President Trump has committed any offense, criminal or impeachable.  But that is clearly where the public conversation over Comey’s firing is, and where it will continue to go.  I thought some legal context might be helpful as we head — hopefully prudently — down each of those paths.  And I will hope to have more to say on each.  For now, I think much of how this conversation will proceed depends upon who the President selects to head the Bureau.

The Sessions controversy, or, why mens rea is so important in the criminal law

What had the potential to be a corner-turning week for the President was marred late Wednesday, and for the last few days, by revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, while a Senator, met on two occasions with the Russian Ambassador during the 2016 election.  This was newsworthy because first, there is concern that perhaps Sessions had conversations about the campaign, the election, or a future Trump foreign policy; and second, Attorney General Sessions had claimed during his Senate testimony, and in written responses to questions, that he did not have any contact with Russian officials during the campaign.  While General Sessions has now recused himself from certain Russia-related investigations, some Democrats are calling for his resignation.  Others are saying he may have committed a crime.  Before Democrats savor the opportunity to chant “Lock Him Up!,” consider the applicable criminal laws more closely.

Is it a crime to give false or misleading testimony to a congressional committee?  Yes, and no.  Two statutes are relevant.  One is the general perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. 1621, which prohibits “willfully” giving a statement under oath that the witness “does not believe to be true.”  It is punishable by up to five years in prison.  The other statute is the false statements statute, 18 U.S.C. 1001.  Section 1001 provides that whoever, “in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch” of the federal Government “knowingly and willfully . . . makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” or “makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry” commits an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

So, to be precise, it is a crime to give a false statement to a congressional committee (whether or not under oath), but only where the statement is made knowingly and willfully.  Statements made with a faulty memory, or when the witness is confused about what is being asked, or that are simply mistaken, are not criminal.  See United States v. Dunnigan (with respect to perjury).  That is why the context and circumstances in which these statements are made matter a great deal, because they bear directly on Sessions’s state of mind and thus the mens rea elements of the statutes.

General Sessions appears now to be claiming that he believed that the questions he was asked referred only to whether he met with the Russian Ambassador about the campaign — that is, other than in his capacity as a Senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.  General Sessions has claimed that he could not recall the substance of the conversations (strange, given the other details he seemed to remember; and if he cannot recall the substance of the conversation, how does he know he did not discuss the campaign or the election?).  Still, if his assertion now is made in good faith, that would likely be enough to negate the mens rea of the perjury and false statements statutes, meaning those provisions could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is probably the likely result here.  It is not unusual for a witness to give statements before a congressional committee, or during a government investigation, that may be misleading or incomplete.  Giving the witness an opportunity to walk back, and explain, the statement more fully should usually be sufficient to satisfy the investigating entity in Congress, unless some intervening harm has been done by the earlier statement (and that does not appear to be the case here).    It is therefore exceedingly rare that someone will be prosecuted for lying to Congress.  That is typically less true when applying section 1001 in the context of a criminal investigation being conducted by a law enforcement agency, and section 1001 is often used as a basis for prosecution.  Moreover, as the Supreme Court held in Brogan v. United States, section 1001’s text does not leave room for an “exculpatory no.”  Still, federal prosecutors must consider the strength and plausibility of the defendant’s explanation of what he believed he was being asked, in light of all of the surrounding circumstances.  And in many cases — including this one — the explanation will not be an implausible one.

One may not accept General Sessions’ after-the-fact explanation as being truthful, but if it is, he is not guilty of a crime.  Of course, there are two very distinct possible explanations here: is it that, at the time, Senator Sessions did not remember his meetings with the Ambassador, or that he remembered but did not think those meetings were covered by the questions asked?  Either explanation could serve as a basis for avoiding criminal liability.  But note that those are very different explanations, and both cannot be true.

One other issue has arisen, though it would be relevant only if we are seriously talking about a federal prosecution here (which, again, I think is highly unlikely).  Would then-Senator Sessions be protected in committee by the Speech or Debate Clause of Article I, section 6 of the Constitution?  More on that in a subsequent post.

It seems unlikely that Sessions is at the heart of the Russia-contacts controversy.  Making him a target may be satisfying to those who did not want him to be AG in the first place, but it likely will not yield much.  A better rabbit hole to explore might be this: did anyone in the campaign or the Trump transition instruct, command, induce, or request that staff and officials deny contacts with the Russians if they are ever asked?  If so, the range of potential criminality with in the Administration could greatly expand.  Will an investigation pursue that question?

Drug prosecutions in the Trump Administration

At one of this week’s White House press briefings, Sean Spicer spent considerable time (clearly more than he wished) discussing the President’s approach to federal drug policy.  This is one of the areas that I had previously flagged as representing a potentially meaningful departure from Obama Administration policy at the Justice Department.  Spicer’s briefing appeared to signal that this Administration would take a more aggressive approach to drug crime than its predecessor.  But that remains unclear.

Indeed, Spicer’s briefing may have created more new questions than it answered, which has become a rather predictable consequence of his briefings.  Notably, Spicer discussed an obscure appropriations rider (which I previously discussed here) that defunds federal prosecutions for drug offenses in states with liberal medicinal marijuana laws.  He distinguished — on no fewer than three occasions — recreational use from medicinal use, saying, with respect to federal drug enforcement relating to recreational use, “I do think you’ll see greater enforcement of it.”  Presumably, in context, he means greater enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act where the use is recreational.  Strangely, he subsequently tried to walk that statement back, instead referring the issue to the DOJ.

But the question now arises: will the Sessions DOJ more aggressively prosecute CSA offenses?  Will the Sessions DOJ reverse the Holder Memo from August 2013 that directed federal prosecutors not to allege drug quantities that trigger mandatory minimums if certain criteria are met?  That was a major pronouncement from Main Justice, and will have a meaningful effect on the way federal prosecutors treat drug crimes.  Yet the Administration has thus far been silent, and Spicer’s briefing did not help to clarify that matter.

Moreover, the rider to which he alluded does not cover every jurisdiction, because not every jurisdiction has liberal medical marijuana laws.  And it only applies where the defendant is in compliance with all of the State’s marijuana use laws.  This means that, potentially, a defendant who is in violation of the CSA, but who is using the marijuana for medicinal purposes in a state that is not covered by the rider (say, for example, West Virginia), could still be subject to prosecution.  Spicer did not seem to appreciate this scenario, and it raises the question: will the Administration prosecute those defendants?  If so, does that not obliterate the distinction between medicinal use and recreational use that Spicer had drawn?  Also, the rider is of limited duration; Congress could change it at any time.  What will the Administration’s position be on continuing the policy adopted by the rider?  Spicer did not say, but his distinction between recreational use and medicinal use would suggest that the Administration wants the rider to exist indefinitely.  Does Jeff Sessions?

Finally, Spicer was asked repeatedly about the Administration’s decision to reverse the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX with respect to transgender bathroom access.  Spicer referred to this as a “states’ rights” issue (it is not, though that is a subject for another day), and said “we are a state’s rights party.”  I have said before that the use of the term “states’ rights” is constitutionally unsound, in my view, and that conservatives should not use it (“federalism” is a far better term, and is more accurate).  But if Spicer is correct that the Administration is committed to federalism, what, then, does that mean for federal drug law generally?  Of course, the CSA was upheld against a Commerce Clause challenge in Gonzales v. Raich, but two notable conservatives – Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas – dissented in that case, as did Justice O’Connor (a notable defender of federalism and of state interests).  Why is drug law not a “states’ rights issue,” too?  By making the transgender bathroom issue one of federalism, Spicer has opened the door to questions about whether the Trump Administration is committed to federalism across subject matter, or whether its approach to Title IX is a kind of fair-weather federalism.

Sure, the appropriations rider is a federalism-protection measure.  But reference to the rider alone tells us nothing about the Administration’s view more broadly concerning the role of the federal government in making and enforcing criminal drug laws.  Perhaps more notably, Spicer’s responses raised this question: if federalism demands respecting the states that have chosen to make medicinal use legal, why does federalism not demand respecting those states that have chosen to make recreational use legal?  In other words, even if we grant the difference between recreational and medicinal use, does a true commitment to federalism require respect for state decisions as to both?

I’m no fan of more liberal drug laws.  There must be a robust drug policy regime that takes a variety of approaches — including, but not limited to, prosecutorial ones — to the range of drug problems in this country.  Spicer, of course, cannot be expected to answer at one briefing every question regarding the President’s views on these various problems.  But this Administration needs a coherent approach to both drug policy and constitutional federalism. And right now it has neither.

 

The constitutional education of America, and of its President

The Ninth Circuit has ruled that President Trump’s Executive Order could remain subject to a stay issued by the District Court in Seattle.  The opinion is here.  This is not a ruling on the merits, though the emergency relief standard was applied and the Court concluded that there was not a likelihood that the Government would succeed on the merits of the case.  The court’s holding was, in my view, a dubious one, though not an unreasonable one.

Regardless of one’s position on either the wisdom or legality of the Order (and I believe the arguments for its legality are far stronger than the arguments for its wisdom), the entire episode has served as a kind of civic education for the American people.  Americans are confronted with serious questions about the scope of presidential power, of constitutional rights, of the place of religion in the scheme of law and policy, and of the role of courts in cases where rights and security intersect.  We have had other such moments in our history.  But it is difficult to think of a time in recent memory when so many valuable questions of constitutional government arose over a single official act.

Americans, regardless of party or viewpoint on the Order, should take time to carefully consider these matters and what they mean for the Republic.  That does not mean that they should all crack open a copy of The Federalist Papers (though we could all do much worse than to spend a few moments with Publius these days), or study The Steel Seizure Case by the fireside with a glass of chianti.  It does mean, though, that Americans ought to savor the opportunity to reflect on what it means to live under a rule of law and a venerable Constitution that diffuses government power.  They should reflect on what it means to have limited government, to have checks that prevent presidents from simply acting at will and checks that prevent judges from ruling as philosopher-kings.

One hopes, too, that the President will savor the same opportunity.  His actions for the past two weeks (nearly two years!) have created serious questions about his commitment to the rule of law and to constitutionalism, questions I raised during the campaign and that have persisted despite my dim hope that his authoritarian tendencies might be tempered by institutions, by an appreciation of history, and by the sheer weight of his office.  The one bright spot in this period was his nomination of Judge Gorsuch.  But as I said during the campaign, it is not enough that Presidents appoint judges who are constitutionalists.  The President himself must demonstrate that same fidelity.

Presidents can be critical of the courts.  The judiciary is not immune from criticism, nor should it be.  Lincoln, before his presidency, thoughtfully criticized the Dred Scott decision.  FDR’s tussles with the Supreme Court were so tense that he proposed packing the Court with Justices who would approve his economic recovery programs.  President Bush respectfully criticized the Supreme Court’s war on terror decisions that disfavored his expansive view of presidential power.  President Obama criticized the Court’s Citizens United opinion during the State of the Union Address.  It is fair, and proper, that political leaders disagree with judges from time to time.  But criticism that seeks not merely to disagree with, but rather to de-legitimize, courts and judges does violence to the separation of powers and a politically independent judiciary.  This is, unfortunately, President Trump’s modus operandi.  He prefers to de-legitimize a critic or opponent, often ad hominem, rather than contest them on the merits.  It is the last refuge of a man who is out of his element on substance.

So, rather than make any one of the credible substantive arguments he could have made in defense of the Order, naturally the President chose instead to personally insult Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” (never mind the judge’s unanimous confirmation by the Senate).  And perhaps worst of all, he then asserted that federal judges who opposed the Order would be held responsible for a terrorist attack – it is hard to think of a more insidious presidential assertion about the judiciary.

To worsen things, he also fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her refusal to enforce the Order.  This was admittedly a somewhat more complicated matter.  Yates’s directive to the Justice Department would have been stronger had she set forth more precisely her legal arguments against the Order, arguments that almost surely would have been vindicated in the 9th Circuit’s opinion (though surely she could have articulated grounds for the Order’s defense, as well).  And there is no question that the President had the power to relieve her of her duties.  But firing her on the spot did little to inspire confidence in his judgment; it was a rash display of raw power that sent the wrong message and failed to consider the longer-term consequences.  Imagine now how Attorney General Sessions must feel.  General Sessions has been placed in an untenable position, and one that diminishes his capacity for independence from the President.  Even the most ardent defender of the Unitary Executive must shudder at the thought of an Attorney General who may have to choose between defending the Constitution and losing his job.

To some extent, the President’s constitutional schooling of late may include a lesson on a truth that his critics repeatedly noted during the campaign: words matter.  Lately, the President has been reminded of his disgraceful pander that called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims” entering the country.  But the problem goes even deeper.  The Government’s claim in litigation that the President should be entitled to great deference in matters of national security is a sound, if imperfect, claim.  But when giving deference to Presidents, it may well be that courts generally trust that the President is knowledgeable and credible on those matters, that his judgment is worthy of deference because he has thought seriously about the problem and vetted his decisions through the collective expertise of the military, intelligence, and security communities.  This President, by contrast, is the one who said he knows more than the generals about ISIS, appeared to suggest that the CIA was using the same tactics as the Nazis, heaps bizarre praise on Russia’s ruling dictator while heaping scorn on genuine American heroes like John McCain and John Lewis, and said our military leaders had been “reduced to rubble.”  And it is becoming increasingly clear that the vetting of this Order was shoddy, at best.   Is it any wonder, then, that informed jurists would be reluctant to defer to this President’s judgments?

Does all of this make the Trump Presidency hopeless?  It does not.  On the Executive Order, the Government retains considerable arguments in favor of its constitutionality – or at least in favor of substantial deference to the President’s national security decisions, in light of the limits on the judiciary’s expertise in such matters – though the prudent course may be to scrap the Order altogether and start over.  Judge Gorsuch will likely make an outstanding Supreme Court Justice.  Tax reform is a real possibility.  And this President may be able to play to his strengths in securing a major infrastructure package on a bipartisan basis.

But the President needs to right this ship in a hurry.  The collection of rash, impulsive, and even bitter statements over the past two weeks has created a portrait of a President who views his official powers as a one-way ratchet.  He has created the impression that the law must bend to his will, lest a tantrum follow.  Of course, Americans should have seen some of this coming.  But the people, through their representatives in the Electoral College, elected him anyway.  Perhaps, then, it is fitting to be reminded of Madison’s admonition in Federalist 51 on the importance of separated powers: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Transgender killing results in federal hate crime conviction

Several of my recent posts have addressed issues related to hate crimes.  Obviously, the Roof conviction and upcoming federal death penalty hearing has made that case the leading hate crime story nationally of late.  But it seems helpful to note the latest hate crime story of interest, also from the deep South.  Like others, it raises important questions about the federal role in prosecuting violent crimes committed with a bias-motivation.  As the Justice Department announced here, a Mississippi man yesterday pleaded guilty to brutally killing his former romantic partner because she was transgender, and in order to avoid the wrath of a violent street gang.

According to the DOJ and the defendant’s statements at the plea hearing, Joshua Vallum had been dating Mercedes Williamson, then 17.  Vallum knew that Williamson was transgender but he kept this a secret from his family and friends.  Vallum was also a member of the Latin Kings.  The relationship ended and for about nine months, Vallum had no contact with Williamson.  Vallum learned, however, that one of his friends found out that Williamson was transgender.  Believing that he would be harmed if the Latin Kings also discovered that he had been dating a transgender person (the gang has strict rules about homosexuality, and Williamson’s birth gender was male), Vallum decided to kill Williamson.

After driving her from Alabama to Mississippi, he shocked her with a stun gun, and stabbed her repeatedly with a pocket knife.  Williamson was able to escape from the car where Vallum had stabbed her, but Vallum gave chase and stabbed her again in the head (he believed he had “hit brain”).  Although Williamson was still able to stumble into some woods, Vallum again caught up to her and hit her repeatedly with a hammer, killing her.

This case gained special national prominence after Caitlyn Jenner remembered Williamson during Jenner’s 2015 speech at the ESPY awards.

Vallum had already been convicted in Mississippi state court of murder and received a life sentence.  But, as has been true in other cases, the Feds believed that it was necessary to pursue a federal prosecution because Mississippi does not have a hate crimes statute for which gender identity is a protected category.  Thus, in the language of both the relevant statute (the Shepard-Byrd Act, 18 U.S.C. 249) and the DOJ’s Petite Policy, the state prosecution left the specific federal interest “unvindicated.”  It is an open question whether the Trump Administration will take a similar view of how federal interests become vindicated by state prosecutions.

Vallum now faces another life sentence, this time in the federal system.  As I have discussed elsewhere, there is no death penalty under the Shepard-Byrd Act, though I believe this case and others demonstrate why there ought to at least be that option for federal juries in section 249 cases involving brutal killings like this one.

But that raises another question: why not also charge Vallum with murder in aid of racketeering (18 U.S.C. 1959)?  The VICAR statute reaches murder committed for the purpose of “maintaining or increasing position” in a racketeering enterprise.  If the Government’s theory is that Vallum killed Williamson not simply to avoid harm by the Latin Kings (surely a “racketeering enterprise” as defined in VICAR), but in order to remain a member of the Latin Kings, then this would seem to provide sufficient evidence to charge the VICAR offense.  That is notable because a killing under VICAR – unlike the Shepard-Byrd Act – does permit the death penalty.

I have not seen the Vallum indictment.  Perhaps it does contain a VICAR charge, and that charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement to the hate crime.  If it was not included, perhaps the theory would be that Vallum committed the killing not on behalf of the Latin Kings, or because of a desire to maintain his position in the Latin Kings, but only because of Williamson’s gender identity and his fear of the gang’s enforcement.  But it seems hard to neatly separate his killing of Williamson on account of her gender identity from his interest in maintaining a place within the gang – arguably, he did one to preserve the other.  And that is precisely what VICAR forbids.

Finally, because this prosecution was based on section 249(a)(2), which is justified only under the Commerce Clause, there is a reasonable question as to whether the federal government properly had jurisdiction in the case.  But the statute easily answers that problem, at least as a matter of statutory application.  It specifically permits federal jurisdiction where there was travel across state lines, see 18 U.S.C. 249(a)(2)(B)(i)(I), and that was the case here.  Perhaps Vallum could have argued that the travel from Alabama to Mississippi was too attenuated from the killing to be justified under the Commerce Clause, but I doubt such an argument would go very far.  The statute also permits federal jurisdiction where the defendant uses a dangerous weapon or other weapon that has traveled in interstate commerce, or where the defendant used a “channel, facility, or instrumentality” of commerce “in connection with” the prohibited conduct, or where the prohibited conduct otherwise affects commerce.  See 18 U.S.C. 249(a)(2)(B)(ii)-(iv).

Still, in a different case, depending upon the facts, it could make sense to question whether some of these jurisdictional elements are enough to satisfy the Commerce Clause.  Watch for a hate crime case presenting a viable challenge to the jurisdictional element and the scope of congressional power.