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Judge Alcee Hastings, Living in Sackcloth

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In his ten years (1979-1989) as a federal District Judge, Alcee Hastings did "sentencing reform" the old-fashioned way:  He accepted bribes for lower sentences. This is the story in a nutshell:

In 1981, Hastings was charged with accepting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a lenient sentence and a return of seized assets for 21 counts of racketeering by Frank and Thomas Romano, and of perjury in his testimony about the case. In 1983, he was acquitted by a jury after his alleged co-conspirator, William Borders, refused to testify in court (resulting in a jail sentence for Borders).

In 1988, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives took up the case, and Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury by a vote of 413-3. He was then convicted in 1989 by the United States Senate (also controlled by the Democrats), becoming the sixth federal judge in the history of the United States to be removed from office by the Senate.

But Judge Hastings is a superb politician, and got himself elected to Congress in 1992.  He's still there  --  but as he tells us, just getting by.

I noted here that Sen. Lindsey Graham has proposed establishing a National Criminal Justice Commission.  I'm skeptical of the idea, because such commissions generally either do nothing or make mischief.  When it's the latter, it's because their membership turns out to be selected "experts"  --  experts, that is, as defined by inside-the-Beltway think tanks, academia and politicians with this or that constituency to please.  

Does anyone think that such a Commission would not have a heavy dose  -- maybe 100%  -- of Obama appointees?  Will a Commission consisting of Eric Holder clones (or Holder himself, for all I know) make sound recommendations? Or ones that will compound the problems we already have?

Still, the idea of a Commission is tempting for people who teach law to contemplate, so I came up with some agenda items.  I confess I have my doubts that they are what the Administration has in mind.   
 
 

European Political Developments

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Here are a few notes from across the pond.

Guilty Plea in NJ Bridge Case

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Jill Colvin and Jost Cornfield report for AP:

A former loyalist to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrived at court Friday to plead guilty to charges related to creating a traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge for political purposes, a person with knowledge of the case told The Associated Press.

The person wasn't authorized to release the information before the hearing and spoke on condition of anonymity.

David Wildstein was an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time of the tie-ups. It's not clear what charge or charges Wildstein will plead to. He will be the first person to admit to committing a crime in causing the series of politically motivated traffic jams in 2013.

Federal prosecutors announced an 11 a.m. court hearing in Newark and an early afternoon news conference. The office, which Christie led before stepping down in 2008 to run for governor, has not said who will appear in court and didn't release any other details on the investigation.

So we don't even know what crime was charged here, but this is one of the most despicable abuses of government power in a long time in the sheer wanton cruelty of it.  To punish the people of a city who must commute into New York because of a political disagreement with the leaders of the city (who work in town and don't commute) is mind-bogglingly evil.

Extending the presumption of innocence, I will assume for now that Gov. Christie knew nothing of this particular operation.  Even so, a leader establishes a tone and a culture for his office.  He does that through his own words and actions and through his selection of the people to staff the office.  This office had a culture where someone could do something so cynically, despicably cruel, and nobody goes running to the boss to say, "Oh my God, do you know what this jackass is doing?!"  Is that the kind of office culture we want in the West Wing?

Update:

Time reports a major policy address given by Hillary Clinton.  Its article starts:

Hillary Clinton called on Wednesday for broad criminal justice reform and renewed trust between police officers and communities, reflecting the former first lady's evolution from supporting the policies instituted by her husband two decades ago...

In part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said (emphasis added):

It's a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world's total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.

I will save for a later post any discussion of the mind-bending density of the "despite" remark. For now, I want to focus on this line in the Time piece:

Clinton planned Wednesday's speech in November, months before she announced her candidacy, according to former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who introduced her.

That would be the same David Dinkins whose stewardship became a catchword for incompetence principally because of the sky-high amount of crime during his administration.  It took Dinkins only a single year in office to "achieve" the highest number of murders in one year, 2245, ever recorded in New York City. Last year, after two decades of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, the number was 328.

Loretta Lynch Confirmed

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The vote was not that close, 56-43.  The Wall Street Journal has the story.

AG Nominee Cleared for Vote

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Kristina Peterson and Louise Radnofsky report in the WSJ:

Senate leaders on Tuesday resolved a partisan dispute over abortion funding that had snarled a bill aimed at curbing human trafficking for more than a month and prevented the chamber from voting on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said that the Senate would begin to consider Ms. Lynch's nomination "hopefully in the next day or so." He has said that the Senate wouldn't vote on Ms. Lynch, nominated by Mr. Obama last year, until the dispute over the trafficking bill had been resolved.

Bring Up, and Vote Down, an Amended JSVA

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The Justice Safety Valve Act, which would effectively nullify mandatory minimum sentencing in federal law, was so radical that its co-sponsor, Sen. Pat Leahy, would not bring it up last year in his own Committee.  In this, Sen. Leahy showed his typical canny feel for the lay of the land.  Committee chairmen tend not to bring up bills they know are so ideologically lopsided they'll go down in flames. 

Still, Sen. Leahy and Sen. Rand "no vaccinations" Paul have co-sponsored the same bill this year.  If Sen. Leahy were still the Chairman, I have no reason to believe he'd be any more willing to advance it than he was in the past.

Still, there could be value in having a vote on the bill in the SJC  --  having a vote, that is, if the bill were amended to give the public a more transparent look at what it's actually designed to do.
There are reasons to vote for, and reasons to vote against, the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General.  Kent and I have discussed the question in several places.  

Kent has noted that Ms. Lynch, while not an ideal candidate from the perspective of those favoring resolute enforcement of criminal law, is about the best we can expect from this Administration.  I have expressed more than a little concern about Ms. Lynch's complicity is what she could not help knowing was perverse, and  -- much more troubling  --  unethical behavior by Judge John Gleeson.  On the other hand, I am favorably impressed with her refusal to adopt the liberal line on pot.

The vote on her nomination has not yet been taken in the Senate.  For whatever one might make of the procedural maneuvers involved, today we saw the announcement of an unusual but some might say compelling reason to delay the vote for weeks. Maybe months.

The Congress-following paper The Hill has the story.
Sentencing "reform" advocates are endlessly frustrated that they make so little headway in Congress.  Unwilling to consider the possibility that their problem is that going softer on heroin and meth dealers just isn't an idea the majority of lawmakers (or the public) supports, a Boogeyman  --  a single, obdurate roadblock  -- must be found.

Today's Boogeyman (and a popular choice for the title) is Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Hence this from a leading sentencing "reform" site:

[E]ven if the vast majority of Senators strongly support significant reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or to federal marijuana provisions, Senator Grassley can ensure-- at least until 2017, and perhaps after that if the GOP retains control of the Senate -- that federal reform bills do not even get a committee hearing, let alone a committee vote.   Indeed, even if the vast majority of 300 million Americans, and even if the vast majority of the 718,215 Iowans who voted for Senator Grassley in 2010, would strongly favor a reform bill, the bill is likely DOA if Senator Grassley himself is not keen on the bill's particulars. Frustratingly, that is how our democracy now functions.

Ah, yes, the frustration of democracy.  Only there's this little catch........

Rand Paul, Dancin' and Prancin'

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Sen. Rand Paul has now "clarified" his remarks yesterday, in which he said (emphasis added), "I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed." 

Now we hear this, from Byron York in the Washington Examiner

The Paul campaign says the senator's words were misunderstood. "Sen. Paul was referring to nonviolent crimes," campaign spokeswoman Eleanor May told me via email, adding that the passage in question was "a reference to his criminal justice reforms."

Where to start?

Rand Paul Launches, Immediately Explodes

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When I was a kid, I watched in dismay as America's fledgling space program resulted in one launch after another in which the rocket got 15 feet off the ground, only to explode in a ball of fire.

Fast forward 50 or so years, and you see Rand Paul doing the same thing.

In his Presidential campaign launch today  --  undoubtedly the most important, carefully considered and best rehearsed speech of his life  --  Paul said this:

I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.

In other words, Rand Paul sees an America where essentially every felony law is repealed, since virtually all of them "disproportionately incarcerate people of color," not to mention people in their twenties and people who are male.

I like to think of myself as decently good with language, but words fail me in trying to convey the ignorance and stupidity of Paul's statement.

Rand Paul Launches, Part II

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Kent questioned where Sen. Rand Paul stands on the death penalty.  I have wondered about that for some time, but have not been able to get a direct answer, even after asking a member of his staff.

I did find this July 2014 article from the Washington Times, headlined, "Rand Paul Says Death Penalty Is a State Issue."  It begins:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said Thursday that the disproportionate number of minorities in the nation's prisons convinced him to push for sentencing reform and restoring voting rights to some convicted felons ahead of a possible presidential run in 2016.

However, the fact that there are a disproportionate number of minorities on death row in the U.S. has not led him to scrutinize capital punishment. He said the death penalty is a state issue.

"I haven't had a lot of feedback specifically on that," Paul told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I just haven't taken a position on the death penalty."

This is a deficient answer for at least three reasons.  First, it's not just a state issue; federal law provides for the death penalty in some cases, and the voters are entitled to know whether Paul, as President, would seek to repeal, or would simply refuse to employ, that provision.  Second, Paul is a resident of a state that has capital punishment, and it would be illuminating to know where he stands on that "state issue."  Third, the answer is a fairly obvious dodge. Especially now, as the Boston Marathon bomber case heads towards resolution, let's hear from Sen. Paul if he approves  --  as even Eric Holder does  -- allowing the jury to consider the death penalty for Mr. Tsarnaev.



Rand Paul Launches

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Janet Hook of the WSJ has this story on Rand Paul's campaign launch and this video noting his differences from his father, who made several longshot bids for the White House.

Hook describes Paul as having a "libertarian-leaning brand of conservatism."  My impression is that he is a straight libertarian who agrees with conservatives only when those two very different paths happen to reach the same endpoint.  (See Jonathan Haidt for a more complete explanation of conservative v. libertarian mindsets.)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a feature on Paul's stands on issues.  The one relevant to this blog is:

CRIMINAL JUSTICE
This is an issue that largely sets Paul apart from the rest of the Republican field. He wants to restore voting rights to nonviolent convicted felons, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, end the federal sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and make it easier for people to expunge their criminal records. He has partnered with Democrats on most of those issues, which might broaden his appeal nationally should he win the GOP nomination.
It not only sets him apart from the rest of the Republican field, it sets him apart from most Republican voters, one reason to very much doubt that he has any realistic chance of winning the nomination.

Birtherism déjà vu

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Years ago, I got an email from a correspondent all excited about the "birther" controversy, whether Barack Obama was actually born in Hawaii or in a foreign country.  I told him to fuhgeddaboudit.  Even if he were born elsewhere, as the son of a U.S. citizen mother he was a "natural born Citizen" within the meaning of Article II of the Constitution.

Here we go again.

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