There are many big policy changes happening in Washington these days and they receive appropriate press coverage. But, there are also many smaller changes that can have literally life changing effects on citizens, which are not generally reported in the media. One of those smaller changes is whether the Trump administration will revive a clemency program for federal inmates that effectively concluded with the end of the Obama administration.
In 2014, the Obama administration developed a clemency program to encourage non-violent drug inmates to apply for presidential clemency, provided they have served at least 10 years of their original sentence and met other guidelines. The Department of Justice program was aimed at inmates that were sentenced under the mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses that were established in the 1980’s, and, who would have received a lesser sentence if sentenced under the current sentencing guidelines. This clemency program was important because nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses.
In order to implement this program, the Department of Justice program partnered with The Clemency Project 2014, a pro-bono effort by lawyers throughout the United States, to efficiently process clemency applications on behalf of inmates. The Clemency Project consisted of approximately four thousand lawyers from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others. Ifrah Law also participated in Clemency Project 2014 and represented several defendants that were granted clemency.
This clemency program effectively concluded with the end of the Obama administration and it appears unlikely that President Trump- who campaigned on a “law and order” principle- would be inclined to revive it.
Further, although neither President Trump nor Sen. Jeff Sessions (the attorney-general nominee) have made direct statements with regard to continuing the clemency program, their past comments indicate that they do not support it. For instance, during the campaign, President Trump commented on the clemency program saying, “Some of these people are bad dudes…And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”
Moreover, back in 2014, when the Obama administration first announced its intention to initiate the clemency program, then-Senator Sessions issued a statement condemning the use of presidential pardons to grant clemency as “an alarming abuse of the pardon power,” protesting that “While the pardon power has been interpreted broadly, the Framers never intended for it to be used in this manner.” Sen. Sessions’ statement also noted that, “In addition to these serious constitutional concerns, there are serious policy concerns”, and, “it sends the message that the United States government is not serious about combating drug crimes”. So, assuming Sen. Sessions is confirmed as the next Attorney General, he does not seem predisposed to reviving the clemency program in any form.
Even so, and notwithstanding the prior negative comments by President Trump and Sen. Sessions, there is some hope of a bi-partisan push by Congress to amend the current federal sentencing structure and address a clemency program. The Congressional momentum comes from a joint interest by members focused on criminal justice reform and members interested in reducing the fiscal costs borne by the prison system. Federal prison costs account for nearly a third of the entire Department of Justice’s $27 billion annual budget; incarceration of one individual costs the Bureau of Prisons approx. $80/day (or $29,000/year), while probation supervision costs only $10/day (or $3,500/year).
This fiscal concern has paved common ground between criminal justice reform advocates and fiscal conservatives, which provides a glimmer of hope that a compromise can be reached to provide meaningful reform that reduces the federal inmate population in a responsible manner, without compromising our nation’s “law and order,” and possibly reviving the Clemency Program to do so.
Finally, in his recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, President Trump was asked about pardoning a Navy sailor imprisoned for taking photos inside a submarine. President Trump responded that he was “looking at it right now” and that “I think it’s very unfair in light of what’s happened with other people.” We think that same sentiment would apply to the Clemency Program, which was focused on inmates that received sentences that were “unfair in light of what’s happened with other people” and would urge the President to consider reviving the Clemency Program.
Federal Criminal (Other)
‘Tis the Season of Giving: Supreme Court Expands Insider Trading Liability to Recipients of “Gift” Stock Tips
Just in time for the holiday season, the Supreme Court has ruled that gift-giving is truly its own reward. But far from embodying the spirit of generosity that typically goes with that saying, the Court has ruled that the warm feeling one gets from giving to others can give rise to criminal insider trading liability. This ruling will extend insider trading liability for the recipients of tips, who were previously thought to be protected where they obtained information from an insider that was not the result of a quid pro quo exchange.
The case, Salman v. United States, dealt with a defendant who had received tips second-hand from a friend, Michael Kara, whose brother Maher was a trader at Citigroup. Maher had initially turned to his brother for help understanding technical issues he encountered in his job but, eventually, began to share inside information with Maher with knowledge that Maher intended to trade on it. Unknown to Maher, Michael shared some of these tips with his own friends, including Bassam Salman. After making a significant amount of money trading on those tips, Salman was charged with insider trading and convicted following a jury trial.
Under a major 2014 ruling from a federal court in New York, Michael and Salman would have been protected from liability because they did not buy any stock tips from Maher or give him a share of their gains. That 2014 case, United States v. Newman, emphasized the legal requirement that an insider receive a “personal benefit” from the recipient of a tip before the tippee could be charged with insider trading. This requirement offered powerful protections for innocent parties who traded on tips they received without doing anything wrong.
But the Supreme Court ruled today that the personal gratification that a tipper enjoys when giving free information as a gift to a friend or relative is enough of a “personal benefit” to satisfy insider trading laws. This all but does away with the personal benefit requirement, since it presumes that an insider benefits even when he receives nothing for information that he shares with another.
At one level, this may seem to make sense on the facts of Salman’s case. One of the Court’s concerns was that a free stock tip may be no different from an insider trading on his own behalf and then giving the money away. And that concern applied with particular force to Maher and Michael, since on one occasion Maher actually offered his brother money but was asked to give him inside information instead.
But the Court easily could have ruled narrowly on that basis; it did not. Instead, by ruling that “the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative” is sufficient to satisfy insider trading laws, it has essentially removed one of the key limitations to the scope of insider trading laws, allowing for even an unthinking tip to a friend or relative to be the basis for criminal prosecution. And although the Court left open the possibility that some gifts may not be meaningful enough to give rise to criminal liability, the breadth of today’s ruling suggests that exception is likely to be both small and difficult to prove.
That means that we should all be particularly careful as we get together with our families this December, particularly if a relative in the finance industry—or, indeed, in the corporate sector at all—offers up a stock tip at a family gathering. Because the joy of giving can now lead to criminal exposure for the whole family.
When you grant access to a $ 4 billion fund and give fund participants relative autonomy in how they use those funds, ne’er-do-wells will sniff their way to the honey pot. Keeping them out can be a challenge. So goes the story of the federally administered Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-Rate.
Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate is a federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries–particularly those in disadvantaged areas–pay for telecommunications services (e.g., Internet access). The program runs a $3.9 billion fund today.
Schools and libraries that want to take advantage of E-Rate simply need to follow the program’s bid and approval process. Participants oversee the bidding process and choose their service provider. While participants are required to choose the most cost effective provider, there isn’t much of a check on whether they actually do: they need only self-certify that they chose the most cost effective bid.
E-Rate participant autonomy has been a problem as the program regularly faces allegations of fraud and abuse. These concerns prompted a GAO study and senate hearings in the early 2000s. Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) told the New York Times, “You couldn’t invent a way to throw money down the drain that would work any better than this.” After the GAO reported its findings (2004), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said, “Unscrupulous vendors … fleeced the program while underserved communities and telephone customers pay the price.” Over the past decade, there have been a number of investigations and enforcement actions, resulting in civil as well as criminal penalties, including jail time for a few program profiteers.
Some noteworthy fleecing includes:
- The Atlanta Public School system misspent nearly $73 million in E-rate dollars giving contracts to vendors without requiring they go to the lowest bidder. The former technical director who ran the APS E-rate program, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $300,000 in bribes from vendors.
- Puerto Rico wasted more than $100 million in program funds and its secretary of education was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4 million.
- In the Chicago Public School system, some $8.5 million in equipment was stockpiled (better yet, the CPS and E-Rate were essentially paying twice for equipment that was never installed!).
- A company in the San Francisco Unified School District was required to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution.
More recently, schools and libraries in the Chicago and New York City areas have been investigated for violating the competitive bidding process and taking E-Rate funds without actually providing E-Rate services. Those investigations are still underway, with dramatic raids last March.
Adding to the temptation for ne’er-do-wells are the millions of dollars left on the table in E-Rate funds each year. According to EducationDive, some $245 million in funds went unclaimed in 2014. It is almost hard to blame profiteers for seeking out what they perceive as free money, especially when they have so much control over the process.
There may be a lot of good intentions behind E-Rate. But in its current form and function, E-Rate is but one more example of a poorly administered federal funds that attract those able to game the system.
It is a well-known maxim that “bad facts make bad law.” And as anybody even casually browsing social media this week likely has seen, the incredibly tragic facts surrounding the San Bernadino attacks last December have led to a ruling that jeopardizes the privacy rights of all law-abiding Americans.
First, it is important to clearly understand the ruling. After the horrific attack in San Bernadino on December 2, 2015, the FBI seized and searched many possessions of shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in their investigation of the attack. One item seized was Farook’s Apple iPhone5C. The iPhone itself was locked and passcode-protected, but the FBI was able to obtain backups from Farook’s iCloud account. These backups stopped nearly six weeks before the shootings, suggesting that Farook had disabled the automatic feature and that his phone may contain additional information helpful to the investigation.
Under past versions of iOS, the iPhone’s operating system, Apple had been able to pull information off of a locked phone in similar situations. However, Farook’s iPhone—like all newer models—contains security features that make that impossible. First, the data on the phone is encrypted with a complex key that is hardwired into the device itself. This prevents the data from being transferred to another computer (a common step in computer forensics known as “imaging”) in a usable format. Second, the iPhone itself will not run any software that does not contain a digital “signature” from Apple. This prevents the FBI from loading its own forensic software onto Farook’s iPhone. And third, to operate the iPhone requires a numeric passcode; each incorrect passcode will lock out a user for an increasing length of time, and the tenth consecutive incorrect passcode entry will delete all data on the phone irretrievably. This prevents the FBI from trying to unlock the iPhone without a real risk of losing all of its contents.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained, this system was created deliberately to ensure the security of its users’ personal data against all threats. Indeed, even Apple itself cannot access its customers’ encrypted data. This creates a unique problem for the FBI. It is well-settled that, pursuant to a valid search warrant, a court can order a third party to assist law enforcement agents with a search by providing physical access to equipment, unlocking a door, providing camera footage, or even giving technical assistance with unlocking or accessing software or devices. And, as the government has acknowledged, Apple has “routinely” provided such assistance when it has had the ability to access the data on an iPhone.
But while courts have required third parties to unlock doors, they have never required them to reverse-engineer a key. That is what sets this case apart: to assist the government, Apple would have to create something that not only does not exist, but that it deliberately declined to create in the first instance.
On February 16, Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Los Angeles filed an ex parte motion (that is, without providing Apple with notice or a chance to respond) in federal court seeking to require Apple to create a new piece of software that would (1) disable the auto-erase feature triggered by too many failed passcode attempts and (2) eliminate the delays between failed passcode attempts. In theory, this software is to work only on Farook’s iPhone and no other. This would allow the FBI to use a computer to simply try all of the possible passcodes in rapid succession in a “brute force” attack on the phone. That same day, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym signed what appears to be an unmodified version of the order proposed by the government, ordering Apple to comply or to respond within five business days.
Though Apple has not filed a formal response, CEO Tim Cook already has made waves by publicly stating that Apple will oppose the order. In a clear and well-written open letter, Cook explains that Apple made the deliberate choice not to build a backdoor into the iPhone because to do so would fatally undermine the encryption measures built in. He explains that the notion that Apple could create specialized software for Farook’s iPhone only is a myth, and that “[o]nce created, this technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key . . . .”
This has re-ignited the long-standing debate over the proper balance between individual privacy and security (and the debate over whether the two principles truly are opposed to one another). This is all to the good, but misses a key point: Judge Pym’s order, if it stands, has not only short-circuited this debate, it ignores the resolution that Congress already reached on the issue.
Indeed, a 1994 law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (“CALEA”) appears to prohibit exactly what the government requested here. Though CALEA preserved the ability of law enforcement to execute wiretaps after changing technology made that more complicated than physically “tapping” a telephone line, it expressly does not require that information service providers or equipment manufacturers do anything to open their consumers to government searches. But instead of addressing whether that purpose-built law permits the type of onerous and far-reaching order that was granted here, both the government and the court relied only on the All Writs Act—the two-century-old catch-all statute that judges rely on when ordering parties to unlock doors or turn over security footage.
Though judges frequently must weigh in and issue binding decisions on fiercely contested matters of great importance, they rarely do so with so little explanation, or after such short consideration of the matter. Indeed, when the government sought an identical order this past October in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Magistrate Judge James Orenstein asked for briefs from Apple, the government, and a group of privacy rights organizations and, four months later, has yet to issue an opinion. Yet Judge Pym granted a similar order, without any stated justification, the same day that it was sought.
An order that is so far-reaching, so under-explained, and so clearly legally incorrect is deeply concerning. And yet, but for Apple’s choice to publicize its opposition, this unjustified erosion of our privacy could have happened under the radar and without any way to un-ring the bell. Fortunately, we appear to have avoided that outcome, and we can hope that Apple’s briefing will give the court the additional legal authority—and the additional time—that it will need to revisit its ruling.
Despite the old saying “the customer is always right,” the law places limits on customer service in the casino industry. Normandie Casino has found this out the hard way. The operator of the casino has agreed to plead guilty to charges that it violated anti-money laundering provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act, according to a Department of Justice press release.
Normandie Casino is one of the few remaining family-owned casinos in the country and one of the original card clubs in California. In the 1980s, the casino expanded its offerings and now features Seven-card Stud, Texas Hold-em, Five-card Draw, Blackjack, Pai Gow Poker, and Super 9, among other games and entertainment.
However, amid all these offerings, it appears the casino failed to consistently observe the banking regulations. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, casinos are required to take measures to prevent criminals from using the casino for money laundering. In particular, casinos must report transactions involving more than $10,000 by any one gambler in a 24-hour period.
Under the agreement with the Department of Justice, Normandie Club, which operates Normandie Casino, has agreed to plead guilty to two felony offenses. In the agreement, Normandie will admit that the casino used independent gambling “promoters” to locate high-rollers. Once the high-rollers were at the casino, high-level employees would help the high-rollers avoid transaction reporting requirements. Normandie would use the name of the promoter on the Currency Transaction Report, rather than the high-roller, and also structure the payments to make them appear to fall under the federal transaction reporting requirements.
Normandie has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine per charge, for a total of $1 million, plus the casino will forfeit the nearly $1.4 million it received in 2013 when failing to file accurate Currency Transaction Reports.
While the casino industry runs on making its customers happy, the casino must also do so within the bounds of the law. Gamblers may seek anonymity, but casinos cannot guarantee this to high-rollers who are making significant transactions.
Beating their chests and breathing fire to rouse the polity, the Department of Justice recently came out with an announcement as earth shattering as the sun rising. The DOJ proclaimed it has adopted new policies to prioritize the prosecution of individuals for white-collar crime.
Deputy Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable. The public needs to have confidence that there is one system of justice and it applies equally regardless of whether that crime occurs on a street corner or in a boardroom.”
What’s the hoped-for public response? Probably something like this: “And the crowd goes wild. Finally, after years of corporate executives sporting Teflon and sliding past investigators, the government is going to put its fist down and make the wrongly rich execs pay for their nefarious acts of fraud, insider trading, embezzling, racketeering, and tax evasion! “
But things look a little different in the actual world of white-collar criminal investigations and defense. In fact, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York and across the country are zealously prosecuting employees accused of white-collar offenses, and their companies are never shy about providing the backup data regulators request.. What’s more, convicted offenders are often subject to penalties far exceeding their crimes, as U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff noted in the 2012 sentencing of Rajat Gupta.
The fact of the matter is that the DOJ doesn’t need to announce a new policy to go after individuals for white-collar crimes. The reality on the ground is we deal with employees being investigated and indicted all the time.
So why did Washington make the announcement? It sounds more like a PR stunt than anything else. Perhaps the Administration is gearing up for the next election cycle, which includes some obvious key elections. The DOJ wants to have a strong response to public outcries for accountability at the opportune time of impending regime change. In prior election cycles, administrations have taken some sort of hard stance on crime and punishment, whether it is increasing sentencing guidelines or messaging prosecutors about white-collar plea agreements.
From our viewpoint, it’s a little hard to take the DOJ’s new policy announcement at face value. We don’t see any recent motivation (outside PR). However, it’s also true that the wheels of Justice move slowly and this may just be a reflection from public dissatisfaction after the 2008 economic crisis, which saw corporations, but few Wall Street execs, held accountable. Regardless, we see the DOJ’s announcement much ado about nothing.
In an ironic twist, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment this morning charging nine present and former officials of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (better known by its acronym, FIFA) and five sports marketing executives with fraud, racketeering, bribery and money laundering. The guilty pleas of four individuals and two entities relating to these same allegations were also unsealed.
The indictment alleges that officials of FIFA, which controls the media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments worldwide, received bribes totaling more than $150 million in connection with the award of those rights. The defendants also include sports executives alleged to have paid those bribes, and the indictment also charges that intermediaries were used to launder the proceeds of those bribes. The lead charge in the indictment is an alleged violation of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
At the request of U.S. authorities, Swiss authorities arrested a number of individuals in Zurich this morning where FIFA executives had gathered for the organization’s annual meeting. The indictment was disclosed along with a Swiss investigation into mismanagement and money laundering associated with the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. FIFA has stated that the award of those tournaments will not be reconsidered.
The great irony of the indictment is that this is about football – not “American football” but “real” football (what we Americans call “soccer”) – the most popular sport on the planet. From a sports perspective, Americans are still newcomers to the game, though the women’s national team has enjoyed perennial success, the men’s national team has climbed in world rankings, and individual American players are becoming more commonplace on teams in the English Premier League and elsewhere in Europe. It is surely ironic for the U.S. to police a sport that struggles for attention at home.
But on the other hand, it should be no surprise to see a U.S. indictment that seeks to address corruption in FIFA that has been the stuff of rumors for years. The FIFA indictment is another example of how the United States projects not only military power but legal power overseas, using its robust Justice Department and court system to impose on the world the legal standard enshrined in its criminal laws. Given that the case is being prosecuted in the Eastern District of New York – where now-Attorney General Loretta Lynch previously served as the United States Attorney – the case may also signal something about Attorney General Lynch’s approach to such multinational cases.
The Department of Justice presumably justifies this extraterritorial exercise because the defendants include several Americans and because FIFA includes component associations located in the United States; the alleged offenses therefore impact Americans as well as those overseas. To the extent this is true, that seems to be appropriate justification. But another question is how that exercise of power will be perceived outside of the United States. Is the United States helping to solve a problem that has dogged international soccer for years? Or is it meddling in matters that are largely outside of its borders and that should not concern it? As news of this morning’s arrests and the unsealing of the indictment spreads, the world’s reaction may answer those questions.
Last July, we reported on United States v. Davis, an Eleventh Circuit decision in favor of privacy rights. In that case, a three-judge panel held that cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data. If the government wants to collect the data, it must first obtain a probable-cause warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment.
The groundbreaking decision seemed a clear victory for privacy rights, but the victory proved to be ephemeral. Last year, the en banc court agreed to revisit the question and, weeks ago, declared that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell tower location data. As a result, the government can collect such data from third-party service providers if it shows reasonable grounds to believe the information is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
In February 2010, defendant Quartavius Davis was convicted on multiple counts for robbery and weapons offenses. Davis appealed on grounds that the trial court admitted cell tower location data that the prosecution had obtained from a cell phone service provider in violation of Davis’ constitutional rights. An Eleventh Circuit panel agreed with Davis. Speaking for the court, Judge Sentelle explained that Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the aggregation of data points reflecting his movement in public and private places. The government’s collection of the data was a warrantless “search” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
To reach that decision, the panel leaned heavily on a 2012 Supreme Court case called United States v. Jones. In Jones, the Court announced that the government must have a probable-cause warrant before it can place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his travel on public streets. The Court so held based on a trespass (or physical intrusion) theory. Absent probable cause, the government could not commandeer the suspect’s bumper for purposes of tracking his movement, even if each isolated movement was observable in public. Several Justices went further, suggesting that the same result should obtain even without a trespass. They hinted that location data might be protected because individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sequence of their movements over time. It was this persuasive but nonbinding privacy theory that guided the Eleventh Circuit’s panel decision.
On rehearing, the en banc court rejected the panel’s approach. The court noted that Davis could prevail only if he showed that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurred and that the search was unreasonable. He could show neither. To demonstrate a search, Davis had to establish a subjective expectation and objective expectation of privacy in his cell tower location data. But this case involved the collection of non-content cell tower data from a third-party provider who collected the information for legitimate business purposes: the records were not Davis’ to withhold. According to the court, Davis had no subjective expectation of privacy in the data because cell phone subscribers know (i) that when making a call, they must transmit their signal to a cell tower within range, (ii) that in doing so, they are disclosing to the provider their general location within a cell tower’s range, and (iii) that the provider keeps records of cell-tower usage. But even if Davis could claim a subjective expectation of privacy, he could not show an objective expectation. In the court’s view, Supreme Court precedent made clear that customers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content data voluntarily transmitted to third-party providers. Because there was no “search,” there could be no violation of Davis’ constitutional rights.
The en banc court explained further that Jones did nothing to undermine the third-party doctrine. For one, Jones involved a government trespass on private property. But the records in Davis were not obtained by means of a government trespass or even a search, so Jones did not control. Additionally, Jones involved location data that was first collected by the government in furtherance of a criminal investigation. By contrast, Davis involved location data that was first compiled by a service provider in the ordinary course of business. Simply put, “[t]he judicial system does not engage in monitoring or a search when it compels the production of preexisting documents from a witness.”
At the very core of judicial independence is the notion that courts and judges decide matters in accordance with the evidence and legal precedent, independent from political power or outside controls. The question of whether a bipartisan and independent judiciary is still alive and well in New Jersey has been called into question recently, as Governor Christie has been accused of packing the state supreme court with only those judges with whom he asserts his influence and will rule his way.
Since the New Jersey state constitution was ratified in 1947, every sitting state supreme court justice has been re-nominated for tenure by the governor after his or her initial seven-year term, regardless of whether the governor agreed with the justice’s rulings. . . until now. The seat of Justice John Wallace has been vacant since May 2010, after Christie failed to grant him tenure following his initial seven-year term. There is fear that Christie has created a climate in which fair and impartial justices fear for their futures if he doesn’t like a ruling. Some criminal defense lawyers believe that a signal is being unfairly sent to judges that they have to align their decisions with those of Governor Christie in order to seek reappointment, which may be detrimental to their clients’ interests, given that Christie has promised to make New Jersey courts more conservative.
The New Jersey State Bar Association created a task force earlier this year to study this issue of New Jersey judicial independence with a goal of producing a report that will contain recommendations for preserving the independence of the New Jersey judiciary. The task force held four hearings over the past several months and also accepted written comments during the same time period, all on the subject of judicial independence in New Jersey. It is anticipated that the Task Force will submit its report in the near future.
In the meantime, as a result of this standoff between Governor Christie, a Republican governor looking to nominate judges who will decide his way, and a democratic state Senate, which must confirm all of the Governor’s picks for the bench, a political stalemate has been created. Individual state senators also have the power to block appointments in their home counties – for any reason and without the need to give a reason, although several experts believe that this unwritten custom of “senatorial courtesy” should be abolished. Many blame this practice in part for holding up reasonable negotiations and preventing entire packages of judges from getting through to fill vacancies in the courts. Over the past six decades, senatorial courtesy has become a tool that can and has been used as a bargaining chip in bitter partisan battles.
This fall, the number of sitting judges in New Jersey hit the lowest point in almost 15 years, with rising case backlogs. Several counties in New Jersey face judicial vacancy rates greater than 20%. As a result, parties can sit for months in legal logjam, due to longer wait times and judges who are stretched beyond their capabilities. This can be particularly difficult for people seeking divorce or custody settlements or business disputes or criminal complaints. In August, Governor Christie and the state Senate reached a deal to fill eight such vacancies, which left a whopping 44 judicial vacancies or roughly 10% of the judicial seats in the state.
To help reduce the number of open seats and to keep the case calendar moving, court officials have called back retired judges, as it is a much easier process to call back retirees than the lengthy and cumbersome process of appointing new judges. As of November 6, there were 77 judges in Superior courts who reside on the bench past the mandatory retirement age of 70, alongside 392 active Superior Court judges. However, this practice of calling back retired judges is being challenged before the Supreme Court of New Jersey in State v. Buckner.
The Appellant Buckner was convicted of armed robbery and assault in 2012 and is currently serving a nine-year sentence. He argues that he is entitled to a new trial because the judge who convicted him retired in 2008 at the age of 70 but was recalled the same year. If he is successful in his challenge to judicial recall of judges past mandatory retirement age, the vacancy problem could become much, much worse. On the flip side, a constitutional amendment has been introduced in the New Jersey legislature to raise the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75, which would help to alleviate some of the need to recall judges.
Some would say that New Jersey courts are at a crisis point. Partisan bickering and stubbornness must give way to action for the benefit of the millions of New Jerseyans who use the New Jersey court system each year.
Fact: the United States incarcerates its citizens at the highest rate in the developed world. Indeed—save one small chain of islands, whose entire population is just a fraction of our prison population—the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest on the planet. And nearly half of our approximately 1.75 million inmates are serving time for nonviolent and/or drug-related offenses.
That is not OK. It is especially disgraceful in instances where poverty is the only factor standing between incarceration and freedom; nowhere is that connection more salient than in the realm of pretrial detention. It seems, however, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel: bail reform—federal and state.
The federal corrections policies—those that prevailed since the birth of the Nixon era’s War on Drugs—are beginning to be dismantled. Of course, that’s hardly surprising, given Attorney General Holder’s unabashed stance on over-incarceration: “It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.” But Holder is on his way out, and we cannot know whether his successor(s) will carry his torch forward.
As for the states, this election season a number of them put their approaches to victimless and/or nonviolent crime on the ballot. For example, voters in three states and 56 municipalities (including Washington, D.C.) had an opportunity to weigh in on how/where marijuana use fits into our society. The result: the majority of voters, across party lines, think it’s time for a change. Eight more states have proposed legalization ballot initiatives for 2016.
The decriminalization of low-level drug offences will, undoubtedly, have tangible effects on incarceration rates. But what of those arrested for the plethora of nonviolent—often victimless— crimes that remain on the books? At least one state is taking action…
In New Jersey—a state where just over 5,000 inmates (or 38.5% of the total jail population) are there simply because they are too poor to afford bail—the state legislature set out to address that problem with a companion bill aimed at reducing the prevalence of pre-trial detention. With its first step, the NJ legislature passed a bill requiring that each defendant be evaluated to determine his/her propensity for recidivism during release, witness intimidation, and flight: low-risk, non-violent defendants shall be released on their own recognizance; those posing a higher-risk will be released subject to certain conditions (i.e., curfews, travel restrictions, and/or electronic monitoring); those posing the greatest risk may be denied bail; and all detained defendants will be entitled to a speedy trial protection. For its second, the legislature voted unanimously to poll the people—via ballot measure—on a constitutional amendment to allow judicial discretion in the pretrial detention of those most dangerous defendants. The Question: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to allow a court to order pretrial detention of a person in a criminal case?” The Answer: Yes. Now, with this tandem effort by lawmakers and voters, the bail reform package is in full effect.
For those whose concern for just policy overcomes the allure of partisan politics, state and local ballot initiatives can offer a keen lens into the hearts and minds of the populace. Although we are reluctant to read too much into the tealeaves (that has pitfalls all its own…), it seems—underneath the partisan gridlock—a sea change may be brewing. Whether this burgeoning trend will bear sustainable fruit—that remains to be seen. In the meantime, we will continue to be encouraged by small wins in the fight for an equitable justice system where socioeconomic status is not fate determinative. Stay tuned.