Problems Proving Obstruction and Conspiracy

April 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice.”[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious.

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence if there is any attempt to impeach.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2019.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


The Supremes Are Already a Partisan Court

October 30, 2018

The violence of this election season is heart-rending, outrageous and dangerous, but so many of us have been predicting and warning about I’m at a loss for words. So, instead, I’ll turn to what I had planned for today.

Chief Justice Roberts told people at the University of Minnesota that the Supreme Court will serve “one nation,” “not one party or interest.” The judicial branch, he said, “is, must be, very different” from the political branches. He commented that the justices have a century-old tradition of shaking each other’s hands before taking the bench to hear arguments. “It’s a small thing,” Roberts said, “but it is a repeated reminder that … we do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation.” In fact, this Court has already become very partisan, Roberts’ sugar-coating to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Constitution, by the way, calls them judges, not justices, perhaps because we don’t always get justice from judges. Judge Kavanaugh’s rant and assumption that the Clintons were at the base of Dr. Ford’s allegations reflected his deeply partisan career. Whatever happened between Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, assuming a Clinton conspiracy in the absence of facts is the very definition of prejudice. That’s become standard Republican behavior – if they don’t like the facts, they just claim a conspiracy. That alone makes it impossible to believe Democrats will get justice from Kavanaugh.

The problem goes much deeper. The Roberts Court has done everything possible to make sure that Republicans control government, regardless of the will of the people. Republican gerrymandering of legislative seats built large victories in the House of Representatives and many state legislatures while the voters were turning against them, thus reversing what the public voted for. That’s why they did it. But the Roberts Court protects their gerrymandering.

The Roberts Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. Witnesses testified about continued efforts to close or move polling places, put fewer polling booths in Democratic than Republican areas and strike large numbers of legitimate but likely opposition voters from the registration rolls. The enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act were actively blocking those efforts. The Roberts Court turned that on its head: because those provisions of the Act had been working, they weren’t necessary any more – a non sequitur any elementary school child would have understood.

The Court stripped voting rights from people who lacked government issued photo ids despite the costs to some voters, in wages and fees, to get the documents required. States could have eased those burdens except that the point was to prevent legitimate voters from voting, to make it harder for the disabled and the poor to vote, all in the absence of any evidence of relevant voter fraud. Election specialists have pointed out in vain that mailed and computer voting present much more serious problems. But state legislatures addressed neither of those problems. They were intent, instead, on stripping rights only from voters they expected to vote for the other party.

And the Court flaunted its political partisanship in cases like Citizens United, by freeing corporations to use their enormous resources in politics, while stripping political resources from unions who represent the factory workers and other regular people who are suffering now.

There’s nothing even-handed about all that. It’s a direct attempt to take the power away from the people and hand it to Republicans, who are otherwise losing the support of the public. There’s nothing legitimate about rigging elections.

Republicans warn that Democrats, if they win, might politicize the Court. That’s a joke. Republicans have already politicized the Court. If Democrats succeed in restoring the balance, that will be a big blow for a fair court. That’s why all our votes matter.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 30, 2018.


Trump’s Disloyalty

July 30, 2018

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to the studio to record but the surgeon said “Sit down, sit down, sit down, you’re splitting my stitches.” Well, I’m here at last.

Trump and a number of Washington Republicans think the FBI investigation of the connection between Russia and the Trump Administration was biased against Trump because FBI agent Peter Strzok believed that the American people should have rejected Donald Trump for president. Since a large share of FBI agents are Republican, one could have credited Strzok as keeping them honest with regard to Trump. But the problem with the Trumpians’ automatic conclusion of bias goes much deeper.

As Rehnquist and Scalia have written, it is almost impossible for otherwise qualified and intelligent people not to have opinions about important public matters. Certainly, if agents are automatically disqualied from investigations of those they oppose politically, there’d be few other than Trump supporters qualified to investigate. But the same logic would make them biased in his favor. Hence no one could be fair to Trump and America.

Trump carries that a step further by suggesting that Russian President Putin, the principal suspect for interfering with the American presidential election, should have a look at the details of the investigation and have his investigators help out. Wow. By Trumpian logic the objects of investigations should control what people discover about their behavior. It’s fine for Russians to control the FBI’s investigation of Russian activities in the U.S. but long time FBI agents should not have anything to do with the investigation if they have ever expressed an opinion.

This Trumpian view of human nature casts light on their own motives. People imagine motives in others that are familiar to them. Trump has turned his presidency into a series of infomercials for his properties. Many members of his family and Administration have similarly been using their offices for personal gain. Most recently, Scott Pruitt was forced out of office because he couldn’t take his hands off opportunities to use his position for personal gain. So I can understand why they’d see everything through the lens of self-interest and conclude that everyone is biased – to which we must add, including themselves.

The Founders understood that the devil lurks in the hearts of human beings without respect to wealth, class, heritage or learning. People, they understood, are subject to temptation. They anticipated that the highest offices of the land could, from time to time, be occupied by the most despicable people. Understanding that, they inserted the emoluments clauses in the Constitution to try to block foreign powers from offering rewards for selling out our country. And they inserted the impeachment clauses to provide a way to depose traitors and crooks from office.

We now have a person in the White House with private assets that reflect the patronage of foreign governments. He conducts foreign policy as a set of infomercials, making sure to play at his various resorts for all to see. His political fortunes may hinge on a single foreign power which used cyber warfare in an effort to install him in the White House. And he’s loyal to foreign powers.

The Republican Party is often called the G.O.P. The G.O.P. stood for the Grand Old Party that won the Civil War under Lincoln’s leadership. They fought for the Union and for principle. Too many current Republicans are loyal to Trump, but not to America. They have neither patriotism nor spine. They prefer to sell their souls rather than protect their country. There is nothing grand or even old about this party.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 24, 2018.

 


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