What’s the riskiest place in NYC for Covid infection? Bars? Frat parties? Mass gatherings to celebrate “Reopening New York”? Nope. It’s the criminal courts.
Working for a public defender outfit, we’ve been hearing daily reports from our so-called Covid Task Force about judges, attorneys, court staff, and guards falling sick from exposure to Covid in the courtroom. Reports from our colleagues are horrifying. Masks are worn as chin diapers. Jurors are packed into elevators 15 at a time. Cleaning is minimal and perfunctory. Social distancing is impossible. Plexiglass barriers are ineffective. And most clients aren’t vaxxed.
A lieutenant in charge of “mask enforcement” in the courthouse came to work for several days with Covid symptoms. He was neither vaccinated nor wore a mask. He ended up in the ICU on a ventilator. The President of the Court Officers Union announced, “Let this be a lesson to all of us to wear our masks properly, stay home if you have symptoms, and get vaxxed.”
Just kidding. Rather, he told the Daily News that it was “some scumbag dirtbag public defender” who posted on Twitter that the lieutenant never wore a mask. He approvingly explained that the lieutenant had refused to be vaccinated because of being misled by the government about the air quality at Ground Zero after 9/11, causing him to develop respiratory problems. Didn’t get vaxxed to get back at the government for what they did to him in 2001? That certainly showed the government a thing or two.
And BTW, Mr. Don’t-Trust-the-Government, even Trump went to Alabama a few days ago to tell his followers to get vaxxed. “You got your freedoms. But I happen to take the vaccine,” he told a rally, risking some boos.
You’d think even one report of Covid infection coming from the courthouse would be enough to precipitate a return to virtual proceedings. But it’s business as usual at the trial office. Attorneys are still being sent to spend hours interviewing clients in unventilated arraignment booths like this:
“This is lunacy,” said an attorney. “How many shark attacks have to happen before people are allowed to stop going into the water?”
“My understanding is that when there’s a mere shark sighting everyone is ordered out of the water,” someone answered. “But we don’t live in the rational world of beaches.”
No, indeed, we’re cogs in a dysfunctional machine. The Chief Judge, presumably aware of the surge of the Covid delta variant, recently trumpeted, “We have made significant progress to resume in-person operations and establish the new normal in court operations.” The “new normal” apparently being that anyone who goes to court, vaxxed or not, risks Covid infection.
Even less helpful is our boss, who declares that virtual arraignments – which the attorneys have been doing since March, 2020 – are “walking away from our clients.”
Walking away from our clients? If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we don’t have to endanger our clients and ourselves to represent them. As someone pointed out, it’s empathy, understanding and conscientious advocacy, including research and motions, that count, not physical proximity. “In all the one-and-a-half years that we were virtual, not one client said, ‘I don’t think you understand me because you’re not standing next to me,’ or ‘Can we meet in person because otherwise I don’t feel that you’re my lawyer.'”
The bulk of court “operations” aren’t trials, where the accused has the constitutional right to confront witnesses or where the jury needs to observe demeanor. Most proceedings are calendar calls, the purpose of which is to schedule another calendar call. “We’re sitting in court for hours for cases that can be done virtually,” observed an attorney.
“But I can’t hand my crying client a tissue through a computer monitor,” someone objected. True, but is it better to risk handing her a Covid infection?
The Office of Court Administration is an easy (and deserving) target. But righteous yipping at bureaucrats is nothing but indignation theater so long as the myth remains that in-person appearances are sacrosanct. “I’ll continue to be a thorn in the side of the OCA,” brags the boss. But who listens to advice from a thorn? Is anyone talking to judges about returning to virtual proceedings for now, especially since they’ve learned that their plexiglass barriers are useless? New York Needs a New Statute Authorizing Virtual Criminal Proceedings
Yes, they deep clean the area after learning of an infection. Which, as someone quipped, amounts to “fighting a known and potentially fatal airborne disease with a bucket and a mop.”
Well, there’s the woke version of the “Don’t Trust the Government” explanation. According to the bumper-sticker-for-brains crowd, it’s an ideological choice that mustn’t be questioned. But the Black Coalition Against Covid calls on “trusted voices in the community,” from pastors to hairdressers, to urge vaccination. Attorneys should be among them. Explaining the risk and possible consequences of not getting vaxxed is no different in principle from explaining the risks of rejecting a favorable plea offer and going to trial. It’s the client’s choice, but it has to be informed.
“Humans, pursue your present course or face obliteration.” (Klaatu, The Day the Earth Stood Still) (1951).
Judge Weinstein died on June 15, 2021 at the age of 99. This is a re-run of our post from December, 2016 when he was only 95. Our excuse for the repetition is that we’d like to add to the many posthumous tributes a vignette of his rare quality of being so interested in everything.
We temporarily suspended our judge-panning policy the other night to go see Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of NY (that’s Brooklyn and some minor surrounding territories). He was at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and not in a glass case either.
Back in the ’80’s, when everything from teenage uppityness to tornadoes in the Pacific was attributed to drugs, the obvious answer was to enact mind-bogglingly long mandatory sentences for “drug pushers.” In 1993, Judge Weinstein wrote in the NY Times that the sheer quantity of drug prosecutions had put the justice system in crisis. His district alone was annually sentencing hundreds of “drug mules,” mostly poor people from Nigeria and Colombia “cheaply hired for one trip,” to years and years of prison.
He was immediately lambasted by Senator Phil Gramm. The average murderer, said Gramm, can expect to spend only 1.8 years in prison! For rape, the expected punishment is 60 days! Is it any wonder that our nation is deluged by a tidal wave of crime? It’s all very well to blame TV and the failure to teach moral values in our schools, but the main culprit is soft sentencing by judges like Weinstein!
A year or two later, the Judge started a seminar on drug law reform, inviting students not only from Columbia Law School where he’d been a professor of evidence for years, but also from own Acme School of Law and Refrigerator Repair across the street from the federal courthouse. We met in his chambers every Thursday afternoon where he provided sodas while we listened to lectures by an assortment of thinkers about the War on Drugs.
We particularly remember a federal prosecutor gleefully describing the gadgets that her office had bought with drug forfeiture money. “We have infra-red binoculars that are so powerful,” she said, pointing out the window to the Brooklyn Bridge, “that if someone’s standing there with a newspaper, we can read the print.” The Judge suggested that it might be a teeny bit unconstitutional for prosecutors to get financial benefits from enforcing the drug laws, but so far nobody seems to have taken him up on that.
Another lecturer, a smug European intellectual in corduroy pants, assured us that crime was, of course, a purely social construct. After he was mugged on the Brooklyn Bridge while the Feds were too busy reading newspapers through binoculars to notice, he wrote to the NY Times, angrily protesting that the American system is soft on social constructs.
One Thursday afternoon, we trooped into the courtroom to watch the sentencing of a man who’d flown up from Colombia with a balloonful of cocaine in his digestive system. A cheerful youth, he told the Judge how he’d spent his time at the federal detention center learning English and getting in shape. “My wife will be pleased,” he said, showing the Judge his biceps.
“What made you decide to smuggle drugs?” the Judge asked. He really wanted to know.
“In Colombia they told me it was no big deal,” the man answered. “They said everybody in America badly wants drugs and would be glad to have them.” Good thing Senator Gramm wasn’t there.
Our final class was on a chilly winter Sunday at the Judge’s home on Long Island Sound. We sat at his dining room table presenting our proposals for drug law reform. The Columbia students, who’d all earned two or three Ph.D’s before going to law school, presented highly intelligent, exhaustively researched, utterly eye-glazing papers. We Acme students, recognizing that the life of the law is not logic but experience, chose topics like, “A Friend’s Experiences on LSD.”
Our own paper was a parody, naturally, about a society where cars are illegal because they cause so many deaths. The point being that it’s Prohibition, whether of alcohol or drugs, that makes them dangerous. Our presentation was received in sober silence. Just as we were about to sink into the floor, a loud voice came from the other end of the table. “HA HA HA!” boomed the Judge, slapping his thigh. “HA HA HA!” The others finally joined in.
After several more hours of papers, he suddenly got up and opened the glass door to the patio. “Quick, quick, come look at this!” he said. We gathered around. He was pointing to the sunset over the Sound and the ducks gathering on the water for the night.
We didn’t see him again for 20 years, until the other evening at the Historical Society. At 95, he’s as active as ever on the bench and his judicial biography would fill volumes. Now that drug law reform is conventional wisdom and “sex offenders” have replaced drug pushers as Public Enemy #1, he’s writing decisions suggesting that decades in prison for looking at child pornography might be extreme. The only visible change in him was that his eyebrows had grown into fuzzy white caterpillars and he walked with a cane.
He talked about growing up in Brooklyn in the ’30’s, remembering the open trolley cars and the ships in the harbor. He admitted to coming from a lawless family: his grandparents fled Russia to escape arrest in 1905. His father, after being laid off from his job, provided the family with food that “fell off the back of a truck.” But if you went fishing off the coast of Brooklyn back then, why, the fish just jumped into the boat!
He talked about how fortunate he was to have a “completely free” education, working for the Al Burns Trucking Company 60 to 70 hours a week and studying the Greek philosophers at Brooklyn College at night. Al would drive him to class, give him time to study for exams and overlook his failings as an employee, such as forgetting to close the safe.
In the Q&A session, someone asked about his well-known fearlessness of being overruled. “I really don’t care,” the Judge answered. “But sometimes I make mistakes and should be overruled.” He recognized that there has to be “a disciplined legal system,” but at the same time, he couldn’t go along with unjust laws. Otherwise, he’d be like the pre-Civil War judges who upheld slavery because it was the law. The challenge was “how to get that play in the joints” of the legal system. Fortunately, he said, he has “brilliant law clerks who can explain to me how I can distinguish prior cases.” That got a big laugh.
Asked what he was proudest of, he answered, “Being able to get up in the morning.” He wrapped up by saying how much he loved his work. His delight was palpable. “I’m glad I was rejected for Chief Judge of the NY Court of Appeals,” he said. “I would have had to retire at 70 and what would I have done with myself for the last 25 years?”
It’s one thing for the Guv to announce that we can now eat at restaurants, and a good thing too, since we’re pretty sick of our own cooking. But going to court in person? Who needs it? State criminal courts were pestholes long before Covid. And those were the public areas where they took school groups. As for backstage, affectionately known as “the pens,” they haven’t been cleaned since Judge Crater disappeared in 1930, carried off by giant rats. Not to worry, they say, the arraignment booths have been fitted with plexiglass partitions. Yes, a convenient alternative to the floor for spitting on.
“Virtual appearances promote efficiency and save money, by eliminating the need for lawyers and defendants to travel to courthouses and for incarcerated defendants to be transported from jails” he says. “Remote appearances promote public health, by reducing the extent to which persons must travel to and convene in courthouses. The COVID-19 emergency may be over. But the presence and threat of future COVID-19 variants and the number of people who remain unvaccinated continue to counsel caution.
“Indeed, there will likely continue to be instances where a defendant’s liberty interests may be protected by a plea, sentence or hearing which can be conducted sooner through a remote appearance. . . . In our adversary system, where the judge, the prosecutor and the defendant all agree that a remote proceeding is preferable, it is difficult to understand why it should not be allowed.”
But what about the Confrontation Clause, you ask? The inalienable right “to meet face to face and frowning brow to brow,” as Shakespeare put it, channeled through Justice Scalia. “Look me in the eye and say that!” Coy v. Iowa (1988).
But if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic it’s that you can perfectly well look each other in the eye via Zoom without having to breathe in each other’s faces. We refuse ever again to attend a meeting that doesn’t have a mute button.
So it’s even more “difficult to understand” why the appellate courts are reverting to in-person oral argument. Why should we put on our shoes and get on the subway just to be frowned at brow to brow by judges who read only bench memos by clerks who read only the People’s brief? It’s a regressive ritual as meaningful as a rigged quiz show. Our liberty interests are best served by phoning it in.
“They tell you to follow your dreams. Does anyone say you have to wake up first?” — Bill Cosby.
The Constitution woke up. “While the prosecutor’s discretion in charging decisions is undoubtedly vast,” said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, “it is not exempt from basic principles of fundamental fairness, nor can it be wielded in a manner that violates a defendant’s rights.”
Put another way. . . the Constitution doesn’t tolerate a conviction extorted by prosecutorial bait-and-switch.
“Finally! A terrible wrong is being righted – a miscarriage of justice of justice is corrected!” tweeted Clair Huxtable, aka Phylicia Rashad, dean of Howard University College of Arts. She then had to explain to the students howling for her resignation that this didn’t make her a supporter of sexual assault.
The complainant was 31-year old Andrea Constand, administrator of Temple University’s basketball program. She struck up a friendship with Cosby, hoping he would launch her in a sportscasting career. He was attracted to her and invited her to his Pennsylvania home several times. He made mild but unmistakable passes.
In 2004, Constand, having decided to return to her native Canada, visited Cosby at his home to discuss her plans. She said he gave her a glass of wine and some little blue pills which she swallowed without asking what they were. Some sexual fondling followed. Cosby said it was consensual. Constand said it wasn’t.
She nevertheless kept up apparently friendly relations with him. Meanwhile she consulted civil lawyers in Philadelphia about a lawsuit.
In 2005, a year after the blue pills incident, Constand filed a complaint with the Canadian police. She then phoned Cosby, secretly recording the conversation, asking what the pills were. They turned out to be Benadryl, an antihistamine that causes drowsiness.
The case was referred to Bruce Castor, District Attorney of Montgomery Co., Pa. Cosby was questioned and his home searched. Castor’s First Assistant Risa Ferman investigated allegations by other women.
Castor concluded that the allegations were unreliable and that Constand had “credibility issues.” He considered the proof insufficient for a criminal conviction.
But Castor figured that as a “Minister of Justice” he would pave the way for Constand to sue Crosby in civil court. He devised a plan whereby his office would agree never to pursue criminal charges for the incident. That way, Cosby would be stripped of his Fifth Amendment rights.
The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as you remember, applies in any kind of legal proceeding, civil or criminal. But if the prosecution guarantees that you won’t be prosecuted, you can’t be incriminated. You’re not protected by the Fifth. You can be compelled to answer questions under oath in a lawsuit. The plaintiff can use your answers to sue you for millions of dollars, but that’s not “incrimination.”
After D.A. Castor publicly announced that his office wouldn’t pursue charges, Constand lost no time in bringing a lawsuit. Cosby was forced to testify in depositions without Fifth Amendment protection. The case was settled and Constand got $3.38 mil in exchange for an agreement not to pursue criminal charges. The deposition minutes were sealed under an interim order.
(Departing from the Decision for a moment) In the meantime, Cosby was taking heat for what is alternatively described as advocating for better parenting or blaming black people for their problems. A young black comedian drew laughs by calling him “the smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. ‘Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80’s I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby.”
This apparently rekindled media attention. In 2015 – ten years after the settlement – a federal District Court granted the media’s bid to unseal the deposition minutes. The court opined that Cosby had a diminished right to privacy because he publicly expressed his views on social issues. The court sneered, “Defendant has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime.”
(Back to the Decision) By this time, Castor’s First Assistant Risa Ferman had taken over as D.A. She instituted criminal charges, claiming she’d never heard of the deal. Ha, ha, fooled you, sucker! We’re using your deposition testimony to throw you in jail.
Constand forgot about the conditions of her settlement and testified against Cosby. Five more women testified about having sexual contact with him after taking Quaaludes some thirty years earlier, although they’d apparently never got around to bringing charges. The trial court saw nothing unfairly prejudicial about this, sniffing that it was “not required to sanitize the trial to eliminate all unpleasant facts.”
Cosby was convicted and, at age 80, sentenced to three to ten years of prison. He was denied bail pending appeal.
The Pennsylvania Supremes overturned Cosby’s conviction in a decision by Justice David Wecht, already known as “Pennsylvania’s Great Dissenter” (apparently a polite version of Justice Scalia). The Court held that “when a prosecutor makes an unconditional promise of non-prosecution, and when the defendant relies upon that guarantee to the detriment of his constitutional right not to testify, the principle of fundamental fairness that undergirds due process of law in our criminal justice system demands that the promise be enforced.”
There was no question that the purpose of D.A. Castor’s non-prosecution guarantee was to force Cosby to testify in Constand’s lawsuit:
“Cosby was forced to sit for four depositions. That he did not—and could not— choose to remain silent is apparent from the record. When Cosby attempted to decline to answer certain questions about Constand, Constand’s attorneys obtained a ruling from the civil trial judge forcing Cosby to answer. Most significantly, Cosby, having maintained his innocence in all matters and having been advised by a number of attorneys, provided critical evidence of his recurring history of supplying women with central nervous system depressants before engaging in (allegedly unwanted) sexual activity with them—the very assertion that undergirded Constand’s criminal complaint. . . .
“Cosby reasonably relied upon the Commonwealth’s decision for approximately ten years. When he announced his declination decision on behalf of the Commonwealth, District Attorney Castor knew that Cosby would be forced to testify based upon the Commonwealth’s assurances. Knowing that he induced Cosby’s reliance, and that his decision not to prosecute was designed to do just that, D.A. Castor made no attempt in 2005 or in any of the ten years that followed to remedy any misperception or to stop Cosby from openly and detrimentally relying upon that decision.”
The Court rejected the dissent’s argument that the remedy was simply to suppress Cosby’s deposition testimony and subject him to a third trial:
“It was not only the deposition testimony that harmed Cosby. As a practical matter, the moment that Cosby was charged criminally, he was harmed: all that he had forfeited earlier, and the consequences of that forfeiture in the civil case, were for naught. This was, as the [concurrence and dissent] itself characterizes it, an unconstitutional ‘coercive bait-and-switch.’”
“Here, only full enforcement of the decision not to prosecute can satisfy the fundamental demands of due process. . . . The discretion vested in our Commonwealth’s prosecutors, however vast, does not mean that its exercise is free of the constraints of due process. When an unconditional charging decision is made publicly and with the intent to induce action and reliance by the defendant, and when the defendant does so to his detriment (and in some instances upon the advice of counsel), denying the defendant the benefit of that decision is an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was foregone for more than a decade. No mere changing of the guard strips that circumstance of its inequity.
“A contrary result would be patently untenable. It would violate long-cherished principles of fundamental fairness. It would be antithetical to, and corrosive of, the integrity and functionality of the criminal justice system that we strive to maintain.
“For these reasons, Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged.” Cosby had served three years in prison.
SORA, or the Sex Offender Registration Act, is a brutal set of laws whereby persons convicted of a designated “sex offense” (not necessarily involving sexual misconduct), can be required to register with the police in person every 3 months for the rest of their lives and have their pictures, addresses and personal information displayed on the public sex offender website. All this after they’ve served their sentences. Marked with indelible stigma, they become homeless, unemployable outcasts — in the name of public safety.
You’d think such harsh lifetime consequences would be carefully and sparingly imposed. Not under SORA. An outfit called the Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders, i.e., parole officers with connections, writes up a Case Summary and a Risk Assessment Instrument (“RAI”) for a judge. The Case Summary simply repeats the accusations from the criminal complaint, regardless of what was actually proved at trial or by the guilty plea. The RAI, while purporting to be a scientific instrument, is nothing but a list of aggravating factors.
Judges take these documents as gospel. In vain does the defense lawyer point out that the Case Summary is based on dismissed or even acquitted charges. Even more futile is arguing that the RAI is totally unscientific.
Ten years ago, Judge Conviser demolished the RAI in People v McFarland, a 44-page decision concluding that this so-called scientific instrument is so arbitrary as to violate due process. The decision was met with a resounding silence. Thousands of New Yorkers continue to be pitchforked onto the ever-growing haystack of supposedly high-risk sex offenders, based on the RAI.
So the judge went to the Press. Okay, it’s only the NY Law Journal, our profession’s leading parakeet cage liner, but how many sitting judges dare to publicly criticize a firmly entrenched procedure that nobody but a few scruffy defense lawyers sees anything wrong with?
We’re a bit skeptical of his proposed solution of having each side proffer an expert at SORA hearings. We’ve seen too many judges blow off psychological expertise when it contradicts their cherished beliefs. Still, it beats adding up points on an arbitrary instrument.
But really, the only way to reform SORA is to abolish it.
Continuing Legal Education, compulsory for lawyers on the theory that they should keep up with what’s going on, now includes an even more compulsory dose of racial-genderal indoctrination. Yesterday we attended an all-day CLE (remotely, of course), where, following a string of appellate squawks lecturing on the nuts and bolts of appellate squawking, came a speaker of Asian descent talking about how she was the victim of bias.
How awful! Unfairly denied admission to Harvard? Unjustly blamed for the pandemic? The butt of racist jokes? Nope. She was given the wrong takeout order.
Wait, wait, you haven’t heard the full enormity of the incident. The name on the takeout order they mistakenly gave her was also Asian! A clear case of unconscious bias, she explained.
Fortunately for the takeout joint, she said with satisfaction, they “responded appropriately.” Like the head of whoever mixed up the orders is displayed on a pike by the door.
As for the rest of the staff — they no longer suffer from unconscious bias when they see her coming.
So, with our newly acquired sensitivity, we were scandalized when the head of our joint issued an email to a few thousand employees entitled “RUTH BADER GINSBERG” (misspelling hur name).
If it ain’t broke, there must be something you can do to screw it up. When our offices closed for the pandemic, everybody was issued a cell phone for calling clients. Just like our office phones, except now you could also text.
That was apparently working too well, because with much fanfare and gibberish, management announced an “exciting new software solution” and “a new path of communication” of automated notifications to clients. Studies show, it was explained, that clients who are informed of their court date are more likely to show up to court than clients who aren’t. Now, thanks to the new client-centered technology, bench warrants will become as obsolete as public flogging.
Except that the robots started sending these automated messages to random people. “This is a message from your attorney Joe Blow who can be reached at (email and phone number). Your case is scheduled for September 15 but please do not go to court. Please confirm what name you would like to be referred by.”
Suddenly the attorneys – who had no idea these messages were being sent – were flooded with responses, the consensus being, “Funky off, asshole!” Well, what would you say if you got a message from some unknown lawyer saying you have a court date but you shouldn’t go? And then asking for your pronouns?
And since it’s not unusual for household adversaries to share a phone, some of these notifications were going to the complaining witnesses. So much for confidentiality.
Even when the robot reached actual clients, their reactions ranged from confusion to yelling. Attorneys had to spend all day soothing ruffled feathers.
When informed of the snafu, the advice from above was to “review the training materials.” Followed by directives to make only constructive complaints. People had worked hard to roll out this system! You have to expect glitches. Can attorneys opt out? No, the client has to opt out individually. Does “Funky off, asshole” constitute opting out? Only the robot knows.
Finally, one of the attorneys passed along a response from a client’s mother who’d received an automated notice purporting to be from him. “I’m sure it was an oversight,” she wrote. “As you know, my son passed away.”
The attorney hopes that having to explain to a grieving mom that it wasn’t an oversight, just an experiment with our new automated system, is something he never has to do again.
Now in the 5th month of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place era, our Guv (“I live alone with a dog and we’re getting pretty sick of each other”) has just reinstated the ban on indoor public dining.
Meanwhile the courts, which have been operating through Zoom, have started sending our clients messages like this:
NYCJA Alert: Starting July 15th, NY courts will begin limited in-court appearances. When coming to court, you must wear a mask, get your temperature checked, and social distance. Family members can accompany you and must follow the same rules. Please contact your lawyer with any questions. Reply H for Help or S to Stop.
So indoor public dining is dangerous, but indoor public defending isn’t? In courtrooms where only the judge is behind plexiglass?
The solution is obvious: outdoor public defending.
Judge: Good morning folks, my name is Woodbridge and I’ll be your judge for today. For starters, would you like to plead guilty or not guilty?
Lawyer: Depends. What are the specials?
Judge: Today’s special is three years probation and $1359 in restitution for the damage to the jetski.
(lawyer and client consult)
Lawyer: How about conditional release with community service?
Judge: That’s not on today’s menu, sorry.
Lawyer: Well, what else is there?
Judge: Five years upstate and five years post-release supervision.
(lawyer and client consult some more)
Lawyer: We’ll take the special. Does anything come with it?
Judge: Yes, indeed. The probation steward will be with you momentarily to tell you about all the attached conditions.
Client: (to lawyer) I don’t like what they serve here. Can’t we go someplace else?
Lawyer: (sighing) I’m afraid they have a monopoly.
Cops fibbing on the witness stand is so normal, there’s even a name for it: testilying. Or in mixed-metaphor legalese, “tailoring their testimony to overcome constitutional objections.”
A little exaggeration here, a few omissions there. Why not, when they know the judge will take their word for whatever they say? Here’s a typical example:
Sgt. Blow: I’ve been with the NYPD for 42 years. I’ve made 90,000 arrests. On October 15th, 2016, my team received a radio transmission of a drug buy and a description of the seller. It matched the defendant. We arrested him and recovered $20 in pre-recorded buy money. I recognize him in court as the gentleman in the red shirt, since the only other person at the defense table is a female.
Prosecutor: The People rest.
Court: I find the arrest and search lawful and the defendant guilty.
Defense counsel: Er, Judge –
Court: Oh, did you want to delay the proceedings by keeping this busy, overworked veteran officer on the stand so you can impugn his credibility?
Defense counsel: If I may cross-examine?
Court: Yes, of course, did you think my courtroom was the Star Chamber? Hahahah.
Defense counsel: Hahahah. (to Sgt. Blow) Sergeant, what was the description you received over the radio?
Sgt. Blow: Like I said, a description of the defendant. Coffee-colored 6-pocket Tommy Hilfiger jeans, argyle socks, Michael Jordan 901 sneakers, 24-karat gold chain –
Defense counsel: Objection, Your Honor, he’s reading from something.
Court: (to Sgt. Blow) Tut, tut, you mustn’t read from a document not in evidence. Just look at it to refresh your recollection. Then you can tell us what you recollect it says.
Sgt. Blow: Tattoo on back saying, “Big Dog,” t-shirt with cap sleeves –
Defense counsel: All this was in the radio transmission?
Sgt. Blow: To the best of my refreshed recollection, Ma’am.
Defense counsel: Did you write down the description when you received it?
Sgt. Blow: Of course not, there wasn’t time. I wrote it down at the Precinct after the arrest.
Defense counsel: And how did you know the $20 bill in his pocket was the same one you gave the undercover buyer?
Sgt. Blow: Because I made a xerox of the bill before giving it to the undercover to buy drugs with. See? It shows the same serial number as on the bill.
Defense counsel: But there’s no date stamp or anything on the xerox. How can we tell it was made before the arrest?
Sgt. Blow: Because I signed it and wrote down the time. [A.S.: we’re not making this up]
Defense counsel: Your Honor, the People have proved only that the officer described the man they arrested, who we concede was the defendant; and that the xerox matches the $20 bill. That’s not proof of anything.
Judge: I find Sgt. Blow credible. Suppression denied.
And here’s the typical hearing when there’s a confession:
Det. Donut: We took the defendant to the interview room at the back of the precinct next to the detectives’ offices. The door wasn’t locked, so he was there voluntarily. We made small talk for 12 hours and then he voluntarily admitted that he shot Big Dog nine times by accident and he’s very sorry.
Defense counsel: Did you record the questioning?
Det. Donut: No, Ma’am.
Defense counsel: Did you take notes?
Det. Donut: I wrote up my report afterwards. Says he admitted to shooting Big Dog nine times by accident and —
Defense counsel: What did you say to him during the preceding 12 hours?
Det. Donut: How do you expect me to remember? It was three years ago. [we’re not making this up either]
Defense counsel: Your Honor, the People haven’t met their burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the confession was voluntary when there’s no testimony about how it was elicited.
Court: I credit Detective Donut that it was voluntary. Suppression denied.
If judges weren’t so unthinkingly credulous, maybe cops would have to tell the truth. But don’t take our word for it.
In a move to reopen the courts with all due COVID-19 precautions, Chief Judge Bludgeon has taken a tip from a recent performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Lieu, where the audience was replaced with potted plants:
Uceli String Quartet plays to audience of 2,223 potted plants.
The concert was a project by Spanish artist Eugenio Ampudia “to show how the pandemic brought people closer to nature.” Which the British press reported as, “to reflect on the absurdity of the human condition.” Either they’ve seen too many Bunuel movies or they’re using Google Translate.
In an exclusive interview, Judge Bludgeon told us, “Even when there isn’t a pandemic, nobody wants to do jury duty. Replacing jurors with potted plants will keep everyone safe and eliminate the cost of buying them lunch.”
“But is it constitutional?” we queried.
“Absolutely,” said the judge. “Anyone facing serious criminal charges is guaranteed a jury of twelve. Nothing says it has to be twelve humans.”
“So it could be twelve dogs?”
“Don’t be flippant!” snarled Bludgeon. “Everybody knows a dog can’t make credibility determinations. They believe anyone who pets them. But have you ever seen a biased plant? No. And by the way, we’re uncompromisingly committed to diversity. It’s not going to be all dusty rubber plants.”
“But plants don’t have any brains!” we objected.
“And your point is?”
“Well, but how do they render a verdict?”
“That’s the beauty part,” chuckled Bludgeon. “The judge decides the verdict. After all, the judge saw and heard the witnesses.”
“Surely defense lawyers will object to that!”
“They can’t. We’ve replaced them with potted plants too.”
So far they haven’t pulled down Prospect Park’s bust of Mozart, despite his being a Dead White European Male. But Lincoln, standing a few yards from him, could easily go the way of General Grant and Don Quixote. Yes, Don Quixote. Well, that’s San Francisco. Here in Brooklyn the mattering lives merely explode giant fireworks all night long.
Righteously indignant iconoclasm has a long, glorious history.
Fourteenth Century iconoclasm:
Emperor Constantine orders icons destroyed
The Dutch Protestant Reformation:
17th Century English Puritans:
Cheapside Cross, London. Demolished pursuant to government warrant.
Mr. Bacon, a guest of the government at Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution, wrote to his sister about the guards, “There is only one Black Woman here. I believe she is an Indian. She is very beautiful and healthy. I do want her but I want a few other women as well.”
Far from appreciating Mr. Bacon’s praise of their staff, the prison authorities sentenced him to 30 days in the box, 90 days’ loss of phone and commissary privileges, 27 days’ loss of time credited towards release and transfer to a higher security prison.
When Mr. Bacon protested that this violated his First Amendment rights, the federal court explained that he wasn’t disciplined for writing a letter, but only for what the letter said. You know, like Peter Zenger wasn’t tried for publishing a newspaper, but only for what the newspaper said. Anyway, Bacon’s letter “was perceived as a sexual threat” and “inappropriate, disrespectful and derogatory language.” So much for the First Amendment, which protects only speech that no one perceives as objectionable.
Last week a higher court disagreed, pointing out that Bacon’s letter was “a mere expression of attraction communicated by a person confined in an institutionalized setting” to a third person outside. “Even using considerable imagination and affording substantial deference to the professional judgment of prison officials,” said the court, there was nothing remotely threatening about the letter.
The court gave examples of male prisoners’ letters to female guards that were punishable speech. Some are too steamy to be reproduced in this family-oriented blog and we’re surprised that The Federal Reporter doesn’t come with trigger warnings.
But one case mentioned by the court deserves Squawk scrutiny: where a Mr. Nawatha Slaton was punished for giving a greeting card and a comic strip to a woman guard.
Prisoner Slaton, thinking to cheer up Officer Franson who seemed to be having a bad day, left a “To Someone Very Nice” greeting card on her desk. On the inside he wrote a verse: “Ms. Franksen, it is hard to find the words thats nice enough for you./ But if these you are reading does what they are supposed to do./ Then nobody will have a nicer day than you. / From a fan of yours, ?? Guess who?” Enclosed, according to the court’s description, was a “romantic comic strip.”
When Mr. Slaton asked Officer Franson how she liked the card, she answered that she was reporting him for “making sexual proposals or threats.” In vain, he protested that it was a joke and asked her to forget it.
Since it would take “considerable imagination” to read a sexual proposal or threat into a wish for a nice day, the offending message must have been the “romantic comic strip.” What could it have been? Porno manga?
Nope. It was Miss Peach, a long-running comic strip dating from the 1950’s (later updated to Ms. Peach) about a young schoolmarm and her kids. Here she is in her classroom:
A recurring theme is little Marcia’s constant putdown of Ira, which nowadays would probably get her expelled for bullying:
But Ira is besotted with Marcia:
The offending comic, as described by the court, shows Ira saying, “Marcia, I love you. Are you ready to make a commitment?” Mr. Slaton had crossed out “Marcia” and substituted “Franksen.”
Marcia answers Ira, “Yes, you. To an institution.”
Get it? Then you’re smarter than the federal court.
What are the grounds for removing a judge from the bench? A sadistic penchant for harsh sentences? Ignorance of the law? Telling a defendant in front of the jury that if he wants to deny guilt he has to get up and testify?
In your dreams.
A Long Island village court judge/attorney (they’re allowed to do both), Justice Paul Senzer got kicked off the bench mostly for emails to his client using three dirty words about the opposing attorney. Four, if you count “eyelashes.”
Criminal defense attorneys in the placid world of murder, rape and unlicensed vending can scarcely imagine the dog-eat-dog jungle of intra-family litigation. When grandma wants to visit little grandson but daughter won’t let her, both sides had better prepare for nuclear war.
Which was Attorney Senzer’s point in response to his client Grandma Coleman’s wishful thinking that her daughter would either give in or represent herself. He wrote:
I don’t believe she will give in. And I don’t believe she will represent herself once we serve her. Her lawyer is a cunt on wheels (sorry for the profanity. . . and don’t quote me). So be prepared.
In another email, he cautioned Mrs. Coleman to cut out the self-help, saying:
I need to warn you about calling the school or the counselor. There are NY cases in which the grandparents were actually denied visitation because they were too heavy-handed in spying, stalking and contacting schools, strangers and other third parties. You are going to have to moderate this conduct because they will turn it around on you. You should know by now that people who work in schools are assholes. [Mrs. Coleman had earlier pursued an unsuccessful lawsuit against a school].
He also cautioned her against refusing to come to court, saying:
I agree with you. . . however, you may have noticed that the “judge” is an asshole. An “asshole” can issue a warrant for your arrest. Just want you to know “worst case scenario.”
And finally, after explaining that she had no legal grounds for forcing her daughter to allow visits, he advised her to drop the case; otherwise the daughter “and eyelashes get to click their tongues and you go on record as having ‘lost.’ Period. End of story. Over.”
Mrs. Coleman figured that withdrawing the case entitled her to a refund of legal fees, like returning a pair of pants. When she didn’t get it, she went to another lawyer who obligingly sent a tekkie to retrieve the judge’s emails from her computer and passed them along to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Who were duly offended, particularly at the “cunt on wheels” phrase, with “eyelashes” a close second. Disparagement of female professionals who need to be protected from gender bias! Translation: no way to talk about a lady.
But taken in context of the brutal world of family court, “her lawyer is a cunt on wheels. . . so be prepared,” was the very opposite of disparagement. He was calling her a formidable adversary. A good lawyer. And not sparing her a blue monicker when he would have used the male equivalent if she’d been a man — what could be more egalitarian?
As for referring to judges as assholes in a private email — he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.
We had a look at the cases the Commission thought were comparable. Wild! One judge winning a fight in a bar by announcing, “I’m a judge!” Another judge hiding her drug-dealing chauffeur from the F.B.I. Another refusing to hear cases in revenge for the firing of a court clerk. And our favorite: a judge mollifying a cranky lower-court judge by promising never to reverse him.
How will the Court of Appeals decide the case? Either way, expect a lot of righteous chin music about how women professionals need to be protected.
Yes, it’s a little known fact, but prior to COVID-19, oral arguments in the Court of Appeals were occasions of great hilarity. Here’s an example:
Scene: Court of Appeals
Lawyer: It was the negligently installed refrigerator gasket that caused my client to suffer pain, inconvenience, embarrassment, loss of consortium, mental anguish —
Presiding Judge: You mean she blew a gasket? (courtroom explodes with laughter)
Lawyer: Oh, you kid! I pick up that you’ve made a subtly nuanced joke.
Presiding Judge: (wiping the tears from her eyes) But seriously, counselor, I didn’t see anything in the record about a refrigerator gasket. I thought your client was hit by a bus.
Lawyer: I guess that point got lost in the brief. Let me get it across with body language (does a 10-minute interpretive dance).
Judges: Aha, that makes it clear! We unanimously hold for your client.
And who’s the lucky litigant who gets to test out the COA’s new safety protocols next week? The Hon. Paul Senzer, a Long Island village court justice/attorney (village court justices are allowed to practice law so long as they don’t appear in front of themselves).
He’s appealing his removal. Seems he called the opposing party some vivid names in his emails to his client. The client had no problem with his language until he advised her to drop the case. Hell hath no fury like a client scorned. The emails ended up in the hands of the Committee on Judicial Conduct. Which kicked him off the bench. What could he have said to deserve this? Tune in for the next episode!
An opinion piece grumbles that our socially distanced lives have become overstuffed with Zoom events, “a tedious trend that needs to stop.” And don’t you invite us to your stupid Zoom office meetings neither. Scientific studies by Dr. Google have conclusively shown that listening to your colleagues on Zoom is even more exhausting than in person. Because we humans were never meant to stare at each other’s enlarged faces for hours at a time. Especially when we haven’t been to the hairdresser for two months.
Prosecutor: Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the coroner testified to a reasonable degree of coroner certainty that Colonel Sanders was shot at 2:06 a.m. on Christmas Day. I give you my word I wouldn’t be prosecuting Billy Bob unless I knew he was guilty. He should be put down like Old Yeller —
Sheriff: (bursting onto the screen) Hold everything! I got new evidence!
Prosecutor: Daddy! You can’t interrupt my summation!
Sheriff: You hush your bazoo, Rose -a -Sharon! At 2:06 a.m. on Christmas, Billy Bob was passed out in the Rattlesnake Junction drunk tank wearing a Santa suit. Here’s the video to prove it (plays video).
Judge: Well, I’ll be the son of an armadillo! Let’s poll the jurors for the verdict. Juror Number 1, how say you, guilty or not guilty?
Juror No. 1: Reckon he’s not guilty.
Judge: Juror Number 2?
Juror No. 2: Not guilty!
Judge: Juror Number 3? Juror number 3? JUROR NUMBER 3?
Juror No. 3: Sorry, I was on the phone buying an oil well. Did I miss anything important?
Meanwhile, the Manhattan federal court has implemented new social distancing architecture:
Tango and waltz available on request.
Jury room installation sculpture
“And you’ll see changes in the courtrooms,” said the Chief Judge. “There’s lots of plexiglass around here.”
A few years back, a less endearing janitor than Archie’s Mr. Svenson got fired from his job at a synagogue. Not only was he not waxing half the floors, he was doing a lousy job of constructing the annual succot tent. He sued for wrongful termination.
The synagogue invoked the “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment protection against “excessive entanglement” by the government in the affairs of religious groups. The Free Exercise and Anti-Establishment Clauses were, as you remember, a pushback against the Uniformity Act of 1559, when Henry VIII decided that religion is a matter for state control like liquor licensing. And if you think that notion went out with the hose and doublet, look at the Chinese government ordering the Dalai Lama to reincarnate in compliance with its “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas.”
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the hands-off principle in Hosanna-Tabernacle Evangelical Lutheran Church (2012), where a teacher-minister claimed she’d been fired in retaliation for threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Court held that religious groups have the right to choose their own ministers without state interference.
In other words, if you’re doing ministerial work in a religious organization, you can’t sue them in a secular court, whether you’re an imam fired for “un-Islamic conduct,” a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) trying to collect overtime pay, or a Chicago church organist alleging anti-Polish discrimination.
The janitor, strangely, didn’t come under the ministerial exception, but he lost anyway.
Last week the Supremes heard oral argument involving Catholic schools that had invoked the ministerial exception to defend their firing of two 5th grade teachers. One was Ms. Morrissey-Berru who just couldn’t get with the program imposed by the New Broom administrator and claimed age discrimination. The other was Ms. Biel who had to take time off for cancer treatments and eventually died. Well, whose side would you take? To the lady Justices, it was a no-brainer.
Justice Ginsburg was outraged that “these people [the Catholic schools] are exempt from all anti-discrimination laws.” What if a teacher were fired for reporting sexual harassment by a priest? she demanded. What if a teacher were fired for reporting that “Sister Mary Margaret [the school principal in Biel, supra] had been stealing from the school, from the school’s till regularly, to pay for her gambling excursions to Las Vegas?”
Can you imagine a Supreme Court justice asking hypotheticals like that for any other religion? Suppose these teachers had been bringing suit against a Muslim school. Would Justice Ginsburg have asked, “What if a teacher were fired for reporting terrorist activities by the Imam? Or if bringing suit against a Yeshiva, would she have asked, “What if the rabbi had been regularly kidnapping Christian babies for sacrifice?”
And assuming without deciding that Sister Mary Margaret was wrong not to renew Ms. Biel’s contract, is that any reason to suggest that she’s gambling away the school’s funds in Las Vegas? Is there a basis in the record? Is it relevant to the Hosanna exception? What would Henry VIII say?
Good thing old Mr. Svenson works in a public high school. They’ll never dare fire him for waxing only half the floor.
HELLO! This is the U.S. Supreme Court reminding you that even in these difficult times we continue to supply you with the same high quality products we’ve been proudly serving up for the last 200 years. Whether it’s premium strict scrutiny or economy rational relationship you’re looking for, we guarantee 100% penumbra-free results, with bonus dissents at no extra charge! Don’t miss this limited-time-only offer! File your cert petition today! [repeat in Spanish, Chinese and Yiddish].
In one small step for severability and a giant leap for social distancing, the Supremes heard oral arguments by teleconference in a case challenging the constitutionality of the anti-robocalling law. But apparently they were checking their emails when their IT person was explaining how to press the “mute” button when they’re not talking. Because in the middle of a lawyer’s passionate defense of the First Amendment rights of robocallers, there came the distinct, unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing.
So judges are human after all. Somebody was teleconferencing from the throne.