Tainted Judge Grants Casino $10m As GOP Prepares To Pack Courts
A scandal-tainted GOP federal judge ruled in December to strip a casino gambler of $10 million in winnings just as Republicans prepare to pack the courts in 2017 after blocking Obama appointments to the lifetime posts.
The two developments underscore the mainstream media's reluctance to report in depth on judges and nominees except in the rarest of scandals.
The Washington Post, for example, omitted any mention of New Jersey federal judge Noel Hillman's past in reporting about him on Dec. 20 in a story headlined Famed poker pro with ‘remarkable’ $9.6 million scheme has to pay it back, judge rules. That omission typifies the timid, superficial coverage that traditional newspapers and broadcasters accord to judges and nominees.
Hillman, shown in an official photo, began his career in 1986 as law clerk for two years to casino magnate Donald Trump's sister. Hillman later helped the George W. Bush administration orchestrate the Justice Department's nationwide political prosecutions to destroy opponents, which resulted in several of the most notorious legal disgraces in recent U.S. history, including the federal corruption prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
Another front-page Washington Post story earlier this week, Trump in position to reshape judiciary with more than 100 vacancies, shows why judicial oversight should loom as major issue after the Trump administration takes office next month.
But that can never occur so long as media outlets foster the illusion that judges are inherently wise, fair and needing little scrutiny. Judges themselves seek to portray this image (as implied by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' year-end report on the federal judiciary, released on Dec. 31).
Today we recap Hillman's innovative (if not activist) casino ruling, then explore the disturbing way he worked his way through the legal system. He reached a position where, beginning in 2001, he helped supervise a series of seemingly partisan Justice Department prosecutions that primarily targeted Democrats, including Siegelman.
The former governor Siegelman, for many years of one his state's most popular politicians, is still being held in the Louisiana federal prison at Oakdale for 1999 conduct that many legal experts say did not constitute a crime, and certainly not one meriting such long, oppressive investigation and punishment.
During Hillman's five-year tenure as a senior official in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, the department waged an all-out crusade against Siegelman beginning in 2001. It joined forces with Alabama's GOP Attorney General William Pryor in a joint federal-state probe that state Republicans had begun at the start of Siegelman's term in 1999.
The special investigation was located at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base for unexplained reasons suggesting the police state tactics in the offing. Playing a lead role was an Air Force colonel who held a joint appointment to the Justice Department and the Air Force Reserves. The Bush administration spared no expense to intimidate witnesses, according to sworn statements and other evidence. For example, they interrogated the key witness Nick Bailey up to 70 times without required disclosure to the defense, and threatened Bailey, a former aide to Siegelman, with 10 years in prison and the likelihood of repeated rape there if he did not provide the required testimony against his former boss.
Siegelman's first trial judge, Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham indicated at trial that he believed charges were weak (later describing them as the "most unfounded' he had seen in nearly three decades on the federal bench). Authorities shopped for a new judge in a second trial and obtained the ethically compromised trial judge, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller of the middle district in Montgomery. Fuller thereupon provided many pro-prosecution rulings on dubious grounds, as documented below.
Alabama's two U.S. Senators, Jeff Sessions (now President-elect Trump's nominee for Attorney General) and Richard Shelby, were part of the Alabama GOP power structure that had sponsored the key judicial and prosecutorial nominees aside from Clemon.
Update: Washington Post's Sari Horwtiz reported Jan. 3 in More than 1,100 law school professors oppose Sessions’s nomination as attorney general. “We are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality,” states the letter signed by professors from 170 law schools.
Siegelman is shown at right with a fellow prisoner in a photo in late 2015 after emerging from 57 days in "The Hole" of solitary confinement. His offense? No one in authority will say on the record.
But the treatment reputedly was because Siegelman had echoed legal experts nationally who say that his 1999 conduct — reappointing to a state board businessman Richard Scrushy, a donor to an Alabama foundation Siegelman supported — was not a crime. Authorities have meted out extraordinary reprisal to whistleblowers and others speaking up for Siegelman, including his co-defendant Scrushy.
Scrushy said he was offered a plea deal with no prison time if he would incriminate Siegelman but he refused to lie, and was thereupon prosecuted to the hilt for his donation to the non-profit. Fuller gave him the same seven-year prison term as Siegelman, and ordered them hauled away in chains to begin serving time immediately, without the normal stay and appeal bond in white-collar cases.
We estimate the government spent at least $15 million on the case, including $500,000 for one paralegal alone to work under contract (outside standard DOJ channels) at the military base filing evidence, as Tamarah Grimes, shown in a photo and the DOJ's top career paralegal on the case reported. The Obama administration's reaction was to fire her, as we reported in a magazine for paralegals with an exclusive interview headlined "From Justice Dream Job to Nightmare…Why This Whistleblower Was Dissed & Dismissed.
Reflecting on all this last spring, the civil rights attorney, law professor and columnist Scott Horton wrote that some key Justice Department officials believe its reputation would be too deeply hurt if the true facts of the prosecution were ever revealed, according to Horton's Washington Spectator column, The Case for a Presidential Pardon for Don Siegelman.
This helps explain the bipartisan nature of the scandal whereby the Obama administration, sometimes using career personnel, repeatedly helped thwart redress of oppressive Bush political prosecutions, some of which were against Republicans like Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens who were targeted for special reasons, as we have often reported.
Hiding the Evidence?
But cover-up is wrong, as the Justice Department (of all places) should know.
Horton provided key parts of that background in a 2007 Harper's Magazine online column, Noel Hillman and the Siegelman Case. Yet Siegelman must still seek via a recent lawsuit the basic records about his case that should have been disclosed before his 2006 trial. His lawsuit seeking documentation from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility was filed last year, reported under the headline Son of jailed former governor files lawsuit to obtain government information.
Horton, shown in a file photo, reported that Hillman's 2007 nomination for advancement from the district court to the federal appellate court had been blocked because revelations in 2007 demonstrated Hillman's disgraceful conduct as head of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section when it targeted public officials like Siegelman on "corruption" charges.
The result not only kept imprisoned targets like Siegelman, so popular in Alabama that he otherwise could have been a potential presidential candidate, but financially ruined their families and those of co-defendants, and rendered their constituents without effective leadership and the national party deprived of several prospective national leaders similarly prosecuted around the nation during the presidency of George W. Bush.
In Alabama, for example, the state's Democratic Party has been a complete a non-factor for more than a decade, aside from one congressional seat. That seat, for the 7th District stretching from Birmingham in the north nearly to Mobile on the Gulf Coast to the south, was gerrymandered so that large numbers of African-American Democrats could be combined into one district. That helps prevent competitive elections in nearby districts, which are all represented now by conservative white Republicans.
On Dec. 31, the trailer for a powerful film Atticus v. The Architect: The Political Assassination of Don Siegelman was released to document the injustice involved in Siegelman's frame-up. Years in the making, the documentary was produced and directed by Steve Wimberly with the support of crowdfunding. The 3:18 min. trailer can be seen here.
In examining these matters below, we show the extreme deference that Congress and the media have accorded Siegelman's trial judge, Mark Fuller, in the years while independent web-based media were exposing Fuller's corruption. Finally, we suggest that scrutiny of nominees like Hillman and Fuller is necessary before Trump and the senate install a new wave of judges and Justice Department prosecutors under Sessions.
Poker Pro Gets Shafted
The Washington Post coverage of Hillman's confiscation of casino winnings here was an entertaining tale by writer Ben Guarino. He reported how card shark Phil Ivey and his partner won $9.6 million at baccarat by learning how to spot minute blemishes on the backs of standard playing cards — and using that knowledge to improve their odds even when casinos supplied and dealt the cards.
Ruling on a civil suit, Hillman rejected a fraud claim against Ivey by the Borgata, Atlantic City's top-grossing casino (shown above at center in a file photo).
But the judge ruled also (in what might be described as a judicially "activist" innovation) that the Ivey should forfeit $10.1 in winnings (including $500,000 he won at craps) to the Borgata because the gambler had violated state casino rules that espouse a general spirit of fair play (albeit without specifically forbidding the conduct at issue). More generally, everyone knows that casinos win more than patrons. The Borgata, for example, netted $84.7 million in profit from gamblers last summer in just one month.
The Post listed the story as one its best-read for the day of publication. But would it not have been even more enlightening and important if the newspaper's staff had mentioned the judge's past?
We explore these notorious cases more fully below.
Bush, Rove, Hillman and a Parade of Political Prosecutions
Hillman began his legal career as law clerk for two years from 1986 to 1988 for Donald Trump's older sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a Reagan-appointed federal trial court judge in New Jersey. In 1999, she joined the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals after nomination by President Clinton.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, had entered the Atlantic City casino business in the early 1980s and within a few years became the major casino operator in the state. He owned multiple casinos before his vast debts forced him into a series of reorganizations under the protection of Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy law.
Trump at one point held an interest in the Borgata, which was constructed in 2003. But Trump has disposed of all of his Atlantic City casino holdings, and the Borgata has been owned by MGM Resorts International in recent years, as reported by Advance Media in New Jersey last summer, Borgata casino has best month ever as Trump Taj Mahal closure looms.
Mentioning that Hillman background, particularly his long-ago clerkship, is not to suggest any impropriety by anyone. At most, the background simply shows that his early experiences may have familiarity with the casino sector via propinquity to the family of the state's biggest owner.
The real story is how Hillman's career progressed into abuse of his law enforcement powers, along with the inevitable mix at any job of routine and good work.
Hillman prosecuted federal cases in New Jersey in the early 1990s under another future VIP, U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff. Chertoff, shown in an official photo, who would later investigate the Clintons as part of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's team.
At the Justice Department, Chertoff would then co-author the Patriot Act, justifying its major cutbacks on American civil liberties as necessary to protect against terror attacks. Congress promptly passed them the month after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the still-mysterious anthrax attacks that October targeting the Senate offices of two prominent Democrats, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (SD) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (VT), and several news organizations. Chertoff then received Bush appointments to become a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and then, in 2005, Bush's second Secretary of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, Hillman also advanced in the Bush administration. He helped lead the DOJ's Public Integrity Section in progressively higher positions from 2001 to 2006, including four years as deputy chief of the section and as chief. His job was to supervise corruption prosecutions, which often involve legal ─ but arguably subjective ─ judgments on which political fund-raising activities are routine and which are criminal.
In late 2006, seven of the Bush administration's 93 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys learned they were being dismissed (not counting two others forced out earlier that year).
News reports indicated that top White House and Justice Department officials regarded the dismissed prosecutors as being too reluctant to prosecute dubious cases against Democrats on corruption charges and voting fraud cases. Voter fraud convictions sometimes involved low-paid registration canvassers who simply made up names because of sloth rather than finding real voters to register. But prosecutors liked these cases because, then as now, they are important for Republicans to justify "reforms" that create obstacles to voting in urban and other Democratic strongholds.
U.S. attorneys, like federal judges, are usually appointed for showing loyalty to the party of the appointive president. However, prosecutors once installed are supposed to enforce the law in an unbiased manner and not misuse their powers to perform as partisan hit squads.
But the worst abuses do not necessarily come to light, especially if higher courts, Congress and the media cannot overcome partisanship and laziness. Virtually no federal case in recent history has had so many whistleblowers as the Siegelman prosecution, yet authorities have never heard them in public or otherwise resolved irregularities. Horton has dubbed the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsiblity "The Roach Motel" where "complaints go to die" rather than to an office that fulfills its ostensible mission of fostering accountability and public confidence.
The U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal
What became known as the "U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal" coincided with appeals by defendants like Siegelman (shown in federal prison in a 2008 CBS "60 Minutes" broadcast) supported by whistleblowers, most notably Alabama attorney and disaffected GOP political operative Dana Jill Simpson of the rural community of rural Rainsville, AL.
At first working secretly in fear of reprisal, Simpson alerted HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, Siegelman's co-defendant, that their trial judge, Mark E. Fuller, should have recused himself from their 2006 trial for financial, political and personal reasons.
Specifically, Simpson pointed Scrushy and then Siegelman to documents showing that Fuller owned between 44 and 32 percent of Doss Aviation, Inc., a Colorado-based company that was in the process of winning $300 million in no-bid Bush defense contracts between 2006 and 2009, primarily to train Air Force pilots and refuel Air Force planes.
Simpson gradually went public with other allegations, such as what she described as Fuller's reputed hatred of Siegelman because the governor had unsuccessfully sought Fuller's prosecution on corruption charges in early 2003 stemming from Fuller's work as a state prosecutor.
She also described fragments of conversations with top Republicans leading her to believe that White House advisor Karl Rove was working with high-level Justice Department prosecutors to frame Siegelman in order to remove the possibility of Siegelman's running for re-election in 2006 following his defeat in 2002. In that election, some 6,000 votes were switched electronically late on election night in Baldwin County, reversing what had been announced as a Siegelman re-election win by 3,000 votes over Republican congressman Bob Riley.
With Riley and other Republicans dominating Alabama politics and media by mid-2007, Simpson broke her allegations primarily with bloggers Glynn Wilson and Roger Shuler of Alabama and with Washington, DC-based Wayne Madsen.
Simpson said she went to Madsen in part because she had gotten to know his work when Rove asked her to investigate him. Madsen introduced Simpson to me on the eve of her September 2007 testimony to House Judiciary staff on her allegations and her interview with CBS "60 Minutes" staff. Adam Cohen of the New York Times and Adam Zagorin of Time also provided important coverage early on when the U.S. Attorney firing scandal was hot news.
But neither mainstream news organizations nor civil rights groups are inclined to investigate systemic scandal in the judiciary in a non-partisan manner. Most civil rights groups, for example, are frequent litigants in the courts and dare not antagonize judges and ultimately donors. For such reasons, our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project was founded to fill a gap.
Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine, however, was Simpson's single most important media contact. His prolific, courageous and hard-hitting columns appeared primarily on the magazine's electronic site. With family ties to Alabama, Horton developed his and Simpson's leads into solidly researched exposes of judicial and prosecutorial conduct of the kind rarely seen in the establishment media.
Simpson (shown in a "60 Minutes" screenshot) described the Siegelman-Scrushy prosecution as part of a nationwide pattern planned to destroy Democratic Party officials at the state level. Horton found other supporting evidence for a remarkable series of columns Harper's published over the next several years exposing the raw underside of the federal legal system.
Putting Judges On A Pedestal
Early in that series (July 2007) was the aforementioned Noel Hillman and the Siegelman Case published just after Fuller, chief federal judge of Alabama's middle district, had refused to recuse himself from the case.
Fuller rejected Scrushy-Siegelman arguments that he violated the legal standard for recusal, saying no reasonable person would even entertain the suspicion that he might not be fair. Other courts endorsed his ruling. This was an obvious whitewash that violated long-settled law, as did many other aspects of the Siegelman prosecution, as we and others have often reported.
Fuller is shown in a 2006 portrait by photographer Phil Fleming gloating in his judicial chamber minutes after the judge and prosecutors had secured the convictions from a nearly deadlocked jury. The rarely photographed Fuller had invited Fleming and a sketch artist covering the case to create portraits following the verdicts. Later, Fleming told me that he had felt the need at the time to advise the judge, "Cut the Cheshire cat look," so the judge could appear more dignified under the circumstances.
A year later, Fuller sentenced Siegelman and Scrushy to seven-year prison terms almost entirely on the grounds that Siegelman had reappointed Scrushy in 1999 to an unpaid state board after Scrushy had arranged a donation to the non-profit Alabama Education Foundation. The foundation had campaigned for a state lottery in 1998 to improve funding for K-12 education in the state.
Some 113 former state attorneys general, the top law enforcers from more than 40 states, have unsuccessfully argued to courts since then that such appointments are routine at the local, state and federal level and therefore the Siegelman and Scrushy actions did not constitute a crime. Many law professors and editorial pages have argued the same point to the courts without success.
Horton, however, has been a rare if not unique figure in establishment circles in denouncing bad motives by judges and prosecutors. Horton wrote in his Hillman column, for example:
Siegelman lost the 2002 election and was forced from office in Montgomery in one of the strangest and most bitterly contested elections in Alabama history. Three men, William Pryor, Noel Hillman and Dan Gans, played a decisive role in this process. Each of these three then also appear to have played a critical role in setting a prosecutorial process in train to “get” Siegelman, apparently on the theory that notwithstanding his doubtful “loss,” Siegelman posed a continuing threat to the dominance of the GOP in Alabama.
The Department of Justice has stonewalled FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests about the history of the development of the prosecution. But from public statements and other reports, we know that two U.S. attorneys – Alice Martin and Leura Canary (the wife of Karl Rove confidant William Canary) – were deeply involved from the beginning, as were Pryor and Hillman.
Horton wrote extensively and bluntly also about the Siegelman trial judge, as in The Pork Barrel World of Judge Mark Fuller, published on Aug. 6, 2007 as part of a series on the judge's highly suspicious legal rulings and conflicts. Judicial authorities failed for years to sanction those rulings and conflicts despite such enormous scandal and criticism.
Horton helped arrange for a compelling treatment on CBS's "60 Minutes" broadcast in February 2008. In Did Ex-Alabama Governor Get A Raw Deal? , correspondent Scott Pelley (shown in a screen shot) and his team made a compelling case that authorities had framed the defendant for political reasons.
In May 2009, our investigative efforts focused on Fuller with an an-depth article published on the Huffington Post's front page for several days, Siegelman Deserves New Trial Because of Judge’s ‘Grudge’, Evidence Shows….$300 Million in Bush Military Contracts Awarded to Judge’s Private Company.
We followed up with other columns, including one showing the abuses of power of that a judge like Fuller can impose on non-criminal matters affecting his region: Alabama Decisions Illustrate Abuse of Judicial Power.
Like Horton and several other primarily web-based journalists, we reported extensively on many other political prosecutions by the Bush administration around the nation – and also on the remarkable cowardice and complacency of higher courts, Congress, the Obama administration and the media to fight the obvious injustices, even those orchestrated by a rival political party.
President Obama said in early 2009, for example, that his plan was to "look forward not backward" in terms of abuses by law enforcement, particularly involving the CIA. Meanwhile, we have estimated that the Bush and Obama administration received about 200,000 emails, phone calls and petition signatures protesting the Siegelman prosecution to no avail. He remains in prison, with a possible release to a halfway house in February following an investigative order that began the same month he took office in January 1999 when the GOP Alabama attorney general William Pryor set up a task force to find wrongdoing.
An appendix below contains a sample of the dozens of columns published by Horton and later the Justice Integrity Project on these themes of corruption within the judiciary and Justice Department.
As a postscript, Judge Fuller in Alabama (shown in a mug shot) resigned his lifetime appointment in 2015 under pressure from virtually all major elected officials in Alabama and major news outlets.
This came after Atlanta police arrested him following a disturbance in a hotel room on a visit to Atlanta by the judge and his wife. Judicial authorities investigated other circumstances of his career, forcing the resignation at long last. A key point is that the chain of events leading to resignation was prompted by a routine arrest by beat police, and not by more than a decade of detailed sworn complaints beginning in 2003 by whistleblowers to authorities in Congress, the Justice Department, bar associations, and higher courts. All of those authorities cared only about protecting their own.
The main significance of this hidden history is that Americans must encourage a thoughtful examination of the next wave presidentially nominated prosecutors and judges. We can be fairly certain that nearly all will have resumes and testimonials providing at least a superficial level of confidence that they will perform their jobs in an honest and fair manner.
But what's the rest of the story? The track record of such proceedings provides little confidence that U.S. senators from either party will illuminate dangers for the public that any of these particular nominees might pose.
After reviewing transcripts of the 2002 Senate confirmation hearing for Fuller, for example, I sought out the spokeswoman for Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee several years ago to ask her why none of the senators, including Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, had questioned Fuller more closely instead of simply accepting his promise to act fairly.
Leahy, whose many years in the Senate included being the target along with Senate Majority Leader Daschle of a deadly anthrax letter mailed shortly before the Patriot Act enactment in October 2001, is shown in an official photo.
I was especially interested in why Fuller could for years before his nomination hold a full-time state job as an elected prosecutor in Alabama while also operating semi-secretly as CEO of Colorado-based Doss Aviatlon, Inc., a conflict suspected by knowledgeable persons (including those in law enforcement) of leading to attempted blackmail upon the judge. Yet Fuller was never asked about that double-dipping by senate committee members when they questioned him in the fall of 2002 before the Senate's unanimous approval of his appointment.
"He received the normal level of review for nominees," Democratic committee spokeswoman Erica Chabot replied to me, with exasperation in her tone.
That "normal level of review" is the problem.
Selected Harper's and Justice Integrity Project Columns On Judicial Abuses
Harper's, Noel Hillman and the Siegelman Case, Scott Horton, July 13, 2007. Noel Hillman is a federal judge in Camden, New Jersey appointed to the court by President Bush in the spring of 2006. He gathered the support of New Jersey’s two Democratic senators, and his appointment was considered uncontroversial. Hillman (shown in a file photo) was portrayed in the confirmation process as a “career prosecutor.” Early in 2007, the Bush White House decided to appoint Hillman to a coveted seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Harper's, The Pork Barrel World of Judge Mark Fuller, Scott Horton, Aug. 6, 2007. For the last week, we’ve been examining the role played by Judge Mark Everett Fuller in the trial, conviction, and sentencing of former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman. Today, we examine a post-trial motion, filed in April 2007, asking Fuller to recuse himself based on his extensive private business interests, which turn very heavily on contracts with the United States Government, including the Department of Justice.
The recusal motion rested upon details about Fuller’s personal business interests. On February 22, 2007, defense attorneys obtained information that Judge Fuller held a controlling 43.75% interest in government contractor Doss Aviation, Inc. After investigating these claims for over a month, the attorneys filed a motion for Fuller’s recusal on April 18, 2007. The motion stated that Fuller’s total stake in Doss Aviation was worth between $1-5 million, and that Fuller’s income from his stock for 2004 was between $100,001 and $1 million dollars.
In other words, Judge Fuller likely made more from his business income, derived from U.S. Government contracts, than as a judge. Fuller is shown on one filing as President of the principal business, Doss Aviation, and his address is shown as One Church Street, Montgomery, Alabama, the address of the Frank M. Johnson Federal Courthouse, in which his chambers are located.
Harper's, Justice in Mississippi, Scott Horton, Sept. 18, 2007. In the last several months, we have looked in some detail at the prosecution of Democratic Governor Don E. Siegelman in Alabama. But while studying the Siegelman case, I have been looking over a series of cases in Mississippi, which are remarkably similar to the Siegelman case in many ways.
Today, I want to look at one of the Mississippi cases, involving Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz. Justice Diaz was charged and acquitted twice in federal court. After reviewing the Diaz case in some detail, it is clear that no independent prosecutor would ever have brought these charges, that the prosecution was inspired and driven by political appointees in Washington working together with Diaz’s political opponents in Mississippi, and that the prosections served a manifestly partisan, and inherently corrupt, political agenda.
But to understand the Diaz prosecution, it’s essential to start in Washington, with the man widely viewed as the most powerful Mississippian in the nation’s capital. In 2002 Haley Barbour, one of the key figures in recent Republican party history, told friends and supporters that he had decided to return to Mississippi and seek to capture the Jackson statehouse for the G.O.P. in 2003. Under Barbour’s leadership, the G.O.P. captured both houses of Congress — a red-letter event since the G.O.P. had not controlled the House of Representatives for forty years. Along with Newt Gingrich, Barbour was one of the architects of the new Republican majority that wielded great influence in Congress even during the Clinton years, and emerged as a real powerhouse after Bush brought the G.O.P. back into the White House in 2001.
On July 25, 2003 — ninety days before the gubernatorial election between [Democratic incumbent Gov. Ronnie] Musgrove and Barbour — the U.S. Attorney in Jackson, Dunn Lampton, secured indictments of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, his ex-wife Jennifer, Chancery Judge Wes Teel, former Circuit Judge Whitfield, and attorney Paul Minor. The accusations revolved around loans made to the judges and claims that they were corruptly influenced in their decisions. The indictments were trumpeted very loudly in the Mississippi media by U.S. Attorney Lampton, and played a focal role in the election campaign of Haley Barbour. The G.O.P. campaign used reports about the indictments and criminal investigations very prominently in print and broadcast media.
Noel Hillman, the head of the Public Integrity Section, whose focal role in the Siegelman prosecution was portrayed here, also occupied the central role in these cases. His presence helped develop media coverage for the cases. Hillman, a political protégé of Michael Chertoff, was touted as a “professional prosecutor,” and his involvement was used to show that the cases were not politically motivated. And as the case developed it became apparent that Hillman had taken control of it.
Harper’s, Justice in the Cradle of the Confederacy, Scott Horton, Oct. 20, 2007. I was recently told that U.S. Attorney Leura Canary and her husband, G.O.P. campaign kingpin William Canary, have been pursuing a PR campaign to burnish Leura’s reputation, using the resources of the Business Council of Alabama. If that’s true, then their efforts have had a massive payoff in the Montgomery Advertiser on October 14 under the caption “Lady Law,” in which Leura’s family is profiled in the most glowing terms — from a grandmother described as “Aunt Bee” from “Mayberry, RFD,” to her father and grandfather, who are profiled as bigwigs in state government and law enforcement.
And amidst all the detailed chronology of the Garrett family, from which Leura (shown in an official photo) hails, there is not even a second to mention her one truly famous relation, uncle Si Garrett, the most notorious Attorney General in Alabama’s history.
I didn’t know, until reading the Advertiser’s hymn to Leura, that she was related to Si. I grew up hearing the tale of Si Garrett, so it’s worth taking a second to recount. Si Garrett was deeply enmeshed in the murder of Alabama’s attorney general-elect Albert J. Patterson and in the massive scandal that subsequently unfolded surrounding organized crime and government in Phenix City, Alabama....
So when Leura tells the Advertiser that “My genetic makeup is chock-full of lawyer and law enforcement genes, so I never had a chance of doing anything else in life,” it’s interesting to think of the whole story.
Of course, bloodline aside, the focus really needs to be on how Canary conducts herself as U.S. Attorney. Aside from the Siegelman prosecution, which was essentially an elaborate exercise designed to install Bob Riley in the statehouse and then keep him there, we have the disclosures that Adam Zagorin recently made concerning the Lanny Young testimony. Young, it turns out, provided whopping evidence against two leading Alabama Republicans, Senator Jeff Sessions and then-Attorney General and now Judge William Pryor (shown in an official photo).
Both of these gentlemen were Canary clients. And the U.S. Attorney’s office in Montgomery instantly concluded that the charges against Sessions and Pryor were going nowhere. It reached these conclusions without undertaking any follow-up investigation or interviewing any of the key corroborating witnesses. (Doing that would, of course, have been counterproductive: it could have produced more evidence establishing a crime).
Harper's, The Justice Department Raises a Rebel Yell: The Strange Prosecution of Charles Walker, Scott Horton, Oct. 20, 2007. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will take a look at a series of cases in which the Department of Justice has been accused of bringing politically motivated and timed prosecutions. These cases generally focus on Democratic elected officials who have been charged with corruption offenses. The charges were generally carefully timed to coincide with election cycles. And the charges were generally peddled aggressively to the press.
Two men are in the crosshairs in this hearing: Noel Hillman, the former head of the Justice Department’s curiously named Public Integrity Section, and Karl Rove (shown in an official photo), the man whose phone calls he regularly handled.
In the past several months we have explored the prosecutions brought against Governor Don Siegelman in Alabama, Justice Oliver Diaz and Attorney Paul Minor in Mississippi, and Wisconsin public servant Georgia Thompson.
In each of these cases, partisan electoral politics was hardly in the background of the prosecution. Arguably, that’s all the prosecution was about. Another case which will feature on Tuesday turns around Georgia State Senator Charles Walker. His case has not, up until this point, received much attention on the national stage. But that may be about to change.
Harper's, When is a Prosecution Political? Scott Horton, Feb. 7, 2008. Once a year, in January, the U.S. Government asks me to give a day-long presentation to Foreign Service Officers, FBI agents and Justice Department officials on the legal systems of the post-Soviet world to help prepare them for a posting overseas in nations with a legal system that will certainly seem unfamiliar to them.
For several years I have included in this, at the request of the MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) and legal attachés (that is, Justice Department officials who will be liaisons with law enforcement officials in the countries) and the State Department human rights officers, a section entitled “How to Spot a Political Prosecution.”
It now strikes me that this mode of analysis has some obvious relevance to things going on in the United States. But here are the questions I present for consideration by American Justice officials trying to grapple with the question in a foreign setting.
Huffington Post, Siegelman Deserves New Trial Because of Judge’s ‘Grudge’, Evidence Shows….$300 Million in Bush Military Contracts Awarded to Judge’s Private Company, Andrew Kreig, May 15, 2009. The Alabama federal judge who presided over the 2006 corruption trial of the state's former governor holds a grudge against the defendant for helping to expose the judge's own alleged corruption six years ago. Former Gov. Don Siegelman therefore deserves a new trial with an unbiased judge ─ not one whose privately owned company, Doss Aviation, has been enriched by the Bush administration's award of $300 million in contracts since 2006, making the judge millions in non-judicial income.
Huffington Post, Siegelman's First Trial Judge Blasts U.S. Prosecutors, Seeks Probe of 'Unfounded' Charges, Andrew Kreig, May 21, 2009. One of the most experienced federal judges in recent Alabama history is denouncing the U.S. Justice Department prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. Retired Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham calls for a probe of misconduct by federal prosecutors ─ including their alleged "judge-shopping," jury-pool "poisoning" and "unfounded" criminal charges in an effort to imprison Siegelman.
Huffington Post, Alabama Decisions Illustrate Abuse of Judicial Power, Andrew Kreig, June 10, 2009. The plight of litigants who face a biased judge is illustrated by the track record of a prominent Alabama federal judge, as well by major recent decisions requiring new trials in West Virginia and Georgia courts. The track record of Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller of Montgomery, Alabama shows that he continues to supervise cases compromised by his personal, financial or political interests despite his promise at his 2002 confirmation hearing to recuse himself from any conflicts.
Exposure of Fuller's record is timely because of the Senate's forthcoming hearings for Obama administration judicial nominees, and because of growing concerns about the recusal standard. These include the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling June 8 that a West Virginia Supreme Court judge should have recused himself from a case involving a major contributor to his judicial election campaign. Also, a federal judge in Georgia admitted last month that he shouldn't have tried and sentenced a high-profile political adversary who now seeks dismissal of the charges.
C-SPAN, Prosecutorial Misconduct Forum At National Press Club, June 26, 2009 (video: 3 hours). Civil rights advocates including Justice Integrity Project founder Andrew Kreig, Alliance for Justice founder Nan Aron and supporters of imprisoned Georgia legislator Charles Walker organized a unique forum at the National Press Club documenting instances of political prosecution across the United States under the Bush Administration Department of Justice.
Harper's, Did DOJ Retaliate Against Siegelman Whistleblower? Scott Horton, July 7, 2009. In a nine-page June 1, 2009 letter to her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, Tamarah Grimes, a member of the Justice Department team that prosecuted former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, itemized an astonishing list of acts of misconduct by her colleagues as they developed what they called “the Big Case.”
Two key witnesses were cajoled, coached, and pressured to change their testimony to better support the charges. This specifically included the key evidence given by one witness on which Siegelman was convicted. But, as Grimes (shown in a file photo) notes, the witness in fact had no recollection of the events – he was pressured to recount them in a way that suited the prosecutors.
Harper's, Sexual Blackmail in the Siegelman Case? Scott Horton, July 21, 2009. We can now add sexual blackmail to the long list of misconduct charges lodged against the federal prosecutors who led a vendetta-like case against former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman.
In an affidavit filed in support of Siegelman’s request for a new trial, a prominent Alabama businessman, Stan Pate, describes how federal prosecutors and investigators threatened to disclose innuendo about the sexuality of a key witness, former Siegelman aide Nick Bailey. The feds hinted about disclosing an improper liaison between him and the former governor to secure his cooperation. No evidence of these questions or of Bailey’s answers appeared in reports prepared by the feds and turned over in discovery.
The case therefore adds to a growing mound of credible allegations that public integrity prosecutors violated the law by suppressing exculpatory evidence and engaged in unethical and possibly illegal conduct in pursuit of their claims.
Harper's, Putting Political Prosecutions on the Defensive, Scott Horton, Oct. 22, 2009. Courts have historically declined to allow an examination of the bona fides of a prosecution in political cases, but in the face of mounting evidence of misconduct and bad-faith motives, as recently shown in the prosecution of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, the tide seems to be turning.
Justice Integrity Project, Court Slaps Feds Again For Christie-Era NJ Prosecutions, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 21, 2011. In a major setback for the U.S. Justice Department and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a federal appeals court last week dismissed federal bribery and conspiracy charges against two New Jersey Democrats targeted in a trap set by Christie. Our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project has repeatedly pointed to the 46-defendant “Bid Rig III” case as one of the nation’s most scandalous political prosecutions of recent years.
Justice Integrity Project, Florida Judge Continues Whitewash of Siegelman Frame-up, Andrew Kreig, July 11, 2011. A Florida federal judge has ruled that former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and his co-defendant have been treated so fairly that no one can reasonably suspect the appearance of bias. The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle denied a hearing or other discovery on whether Siegelman’s trial judge should be recused. Hinkle thus continued the whitewash of the nation’s most notorious political prosecution of the decade.
OpEd News, Chief Justice's Annual Report Ducks Judicial Ethics Scandals, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 1, 2012. The federal courts function honestly, according to a self-serving annual report on the federal judiciary that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (shown above) issued Dec. 31 in the middle of the New Year's holiday weekend. His report focused heavily on the need for public confidence in the judiciary. But he recommended nothing more than what he called continued self-discipline by judges.
Justice Integrity Project, Wife-Beating Siegelman Judge Resigns, Ends Horrid Career With Civic Lesson, Andrew Kreig. June 4, 2015. A notorious federal judge has resigned under the threat of impeachment — and thus provided a harsh but useful lesson for civic activists everywhere.
According to a federal court order June 1, fellow judges within the Atlanta-based Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recommended to the national Judicial Council that Alabama U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller, shown Mark Fuller Mug Shotat right during a courtroom appearance as a defendant, be impeached as a first step for removal from his lifetime appointment. Fuller, a federal judge since 2002, announced through his attorneys his resignation effective Aug. 1. The resignation provides important civic lessons in the career of a judge whose disgraceful conduct we have been documenting for six years. But the system has protected him until an Atlanta policeman arrested him est last August in Atlanta on a misdemeanor charge of battery against his then-wife, Kelli Gregg Fuller. He is shown at left in a jail mugshot the morning of his arrest and at right in a later court appearance.
Fuller has also became widely known in legal reform circles for presiding over the 2006 trial and sentencing of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman in a federal corruption prosecution tainted by claims of gross legal irregularities. The Bush-era prosecution has been ratified by the courts and the Obama administration. Siegelman is not scheduled for release until mid-2017 for conduct that occurred in 1999.
Justice Integrity Project, Businessman, Siegelman Co-Defendant, DOJ Victim Richard Scrushy To Provide Litigation Lessons In DC July 29, Andrew Kreig, July 24, 2015. Richard Scrushy, the founder and former CEO of HealthSouth, Inc. and co-defendant in one of the most widely condemned federal prosecutions in recent U.S. history, will share his hard-won insights July 29 on Capitol Hill and at a National Press Club dinner.
Scrushy, still an entrepreneur and now also an author and motivational speaker, speaks at 4 p.m. on the opening day of the annual Whistle Blowers Summit to advise others on coping with the legal hardships that many whistleblowers must endure. At 6:30 p.m., he talks to the National Press Club’s McClendon Group at an informal dinner open to the press and public.
Along with advice, Scrushy provides his take on the long prison terms he and Siegelman have endured. They were targeted with corruption charges stemming from 1999 actions despite gross courtroom irregularities and unprecedented nationwide protests by legal experts. Siegelman is scheduled for release in mid-2017.
Scrushy, a father of nine shown with a son while imprisoned, was convicted solely for what he describes as a $250,000 HealthSouth donation much like that of several other big Alabama companies. It was to defray the costs of a failed 1998 referendum to increase state funding for K-12 schools with state lottery proceeds. He says prosecutors won their case by exaggerating the donation’s size, source, destination, and purpose – and pressuring their star witness into a false testimony motivated by the serious charges he faced in another case. Scrushy received a 78-month term from federal trial judge Mark Fuller, who has since become so scandal-ridden that he resigns his lifetime post Aug. 1.
Justice Integrity Project, Siegelman Frame-Up Requires Obama Response To Ongoing Outrages, Andrew Kreig, Dec. 29, 2015. The return to solitary confinement of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman for 57 days this fall underscores President Obama's duty to provide clemency to a victim of America's most disgraceful recent political prosecution.
Related Recent News Coverage
Washington Post, Famed poker pro with ‘remarkable’ $9.6 million scheme has to pay it back, judge rules, Ben Guarino, Dec. 20, 2016. In July 2012, Phil Ivey walked into the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N. J. Over the next 17 hours, he would become nearly $4.8 million richer. A gambler by profession, Ivey billed himself as the “Tiger Woods” of poker; he had won more than $6 million from several tours on the World Series of Poker and another $19 million through years of online poker. But Ivey was not playing poker on that day in July. His winning spree came from baccarat — a game of chance associated with high rollers and would-be James Bonds.
This was not Ivey’s first impressive baccarat run. He visited the Borgata to play baccarat three other times, too, between April and October 2012. His total winnings from those visits amounted to more than $9.6 million, according to court documents.
Baccarat, as it is played in most U.S. casinos, rewards luck, not skill. Ivey did not have $9.6 million worth of luck.
Borgata sued Ivey, alleging that the gambler had defrauded the casino. But his winning scheme, once revealed, was not exactly cheating, not in the eyes of a district court judge. Ivey did not commit fraud, Judge Noel Hillman for the U.S. District of New Jersey wrote in an opinion on Monday.
It wasn’t fraud, however, because they did not break the rules of baccarat, he determined. Those rules “do not prohibit a player from manipulating the cards.” Nor were they obligated, as the casino claimed, to explain why they wanted the dealer to behave in a certain way. Instead, the judge ruled Ivey and a partner did break the rules of New Jersey’s Casino Control Act and thus “breached their contract with Borgata.”
In December, the judge ordered the pair to return $10.1 million to Borgata, reflecting the baccarat cash as well as $500,000 won using some of the winnings at craps.
NJ.com, Borgata casino has best month ever as Trump Taj Mahal closure looms, Craig McCarthy, Aug. 14, 2016. Atlantic City's top casino had its best month ever even as the soon-to-close Trump Taj Mahal casino faltered amid a month-long strike that helped prompt its billionaire owner to decide to shut it down. The Borgata won nearly $85 million from gamblers in July, its best month ever and a 12.1 percent increase over July 2015.
That came as the Trump Taj Mahal casino posted an 8.2 percent revenue decline amid a strike by the city's main casino workers' union. The casino opened by Donald Trump in 1990 is now owned by his friend and fellow billionaire Carl Icahn, who plans to shut it down Oct. 10, citing multimillion-dollar monthly losses due in part to the strike.
But the biggest news came from the Borgata, which was recently fully acquired by MGM Resorts International, which formerly owned half of it. It won $84.7 million from gamblers in July.
The news was much bleaker at the Trump Taj Mahal. The strike began July 1 and is ongoing. Figures released Friday by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the Taj Mahal won $17.5 million from gamblers in July, down from the $19.1 million it won in July 2015 when there was no strike. The results likely would have been worse had there not been an extra Saturday and Sunday this July compared to last July.
Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union went on strike against the Taj Mahal after being unable to reach a deal restoring health insurance and pension benefits that the casino's former owners terminated in bankruptcy court. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, no longer owns the casino, having cut most ties with Atlantic City in 2009. His lone remaining 10 percent ownership stake in the Taj Mahal's parent company was wiped out during its most recent bankruptcy when Icahn took over in March.
Atticus v. The Architect: The Political Assassination of Don Siegelman documentary film trailer shown above. Produced and directed by Steve Wimberly (3:18 min.).
Center for Public Integrity, Barack Obama's ambassador legacy: Plum postings for big donors, Will Donald Trump similarly reward his political patrons? Dave Levinthal and Chris Zubak-Skees, Jan. 4, 2017. President-elect Donald Trump has begun nominating the people who he wants to represent U.S. interests abroad.
But even Trump, who despite his "drain the swamp" mantra has been rewarding major campaign donors with prime positions in his cabinet, will find it difficult to match President Barack Obama's legacy of sending top political patrons to the world's poshest capital cities, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. (The practice has been embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents alike for generations.)
During his second term, Obama named 31 campaign "bundlers" — supporters who raised at least $50,000 to fund his presidential campaigns — as ambassadors. Obama tapped nearly all of these bundlers to serve in Western European nations or other highly developed and stable countries such as Canada and New Zealand.
Another 39 of Obama's second-term ambassador nominees are political appointees who either gave his campaign money or are known political allies. They, too, largely enjoyed postings to wealthy and peaceful nations — Ireland, Denmark and Australia, for example — or high-profile countries such as China and India.
WAFF-TV, Son of jailed former governor files lawsuit to obtain government information, Amanda Jarrett, Jan. 19, 2016. The son of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman is suing the Office of Professional Responsibility, a branch of the United States Department of Justice. Siegelman is serving a federal sentence for bribery and conspiracy at Oakdale Prison in Louisiana.
Siegelman’s son, Joseph Siegelman, is suing for records obtained during the Office of Professional Responsibility’s, or OPR’s, investigation into Siegelman’s prosecution and conviction. The OPR investigates Department of Justice attorneys accused of professional misconduct. The filing states that the OPR opened an investigation after multiple national media outlets reported on the Siegelman case and raised questions about the prosecution. These outlets reported prosecutors placed undue pressure on witnesses, communicated with the jury, communicated privately with the judge, and withheld evidence from the defense.
The lawsuit also notes an article written by the Project On Governmental Oversight. That article mentioned a letter summarizing the OPR investigation. That letter reportedly includes admissions from “several” officials who acted improperly. In June 2015, Joseph Siegelman filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request for the OPR findings. The OPR denied that request based on an exemption for inter- or intra- agency memos or letters, an exemption for personal privacy interests, and an exemption for records compiled for law enforcement.
Joseph Siegelman says the OPR is wrong in their reasoning and is illegally withholding the information. He has requested a trial before a federal jury. Don Siegelman’s release date is set for August 8, 2017.
Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman is shown in prison Dec. 11, 2015 at left with a fellow inmate, Charles Cloud, just after the former governor's release from 57 days of solitary confinement in "The Hole" at Oakdale's federal prison in Louisiana.
Washington Spectator, The Case for a Presidential Pardon for Don Siegelman, Scott Horton, March 8, 2016. Scott Horton is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a contributing editor at Harper’s. President Barack Obama has promised one of the most sweeping criminal justice reforms in recent years and has built a strong bipartisan coalition to support it. However, while the Constitution gives him the direct authority to immediately reverse glaring injustices — through the use of the power of pardon and clemency — Obama has been extraordinarily cautious about acting.
One case among the thousands now before Obama cries out for consideration. That is the 2006 conviction of Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman on corruption charges stemming from his acceptance of a $500,000 donation as he sought to pass a state lottery to fund public education. The donation was made by a health care executive, whom Siegelman reappointed to an uncompensated state hospital oversight board. As more than 100 of the nation’s current and former attorneys general have pointed out, this prosecution was extraordinary. If such conduct is corrupt, then there is hardly a senior political figure in the country who could escape prison — including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who both gave dozens of diplomatic and other government appointments to individuals who contributed or aggregated six- or seven-figure sums to their own campaigns.
This case bares all the hallmarks of politically motivated prosecution. After Siegelman’s conviction, a series of newspaper and broadcast exposés established that he had been the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by Texas-based consultant Karl Rove and a number of senior Alabama Republicans. CBS’s “60 Minutes” got wind of the case and provided coverage on the essentially undisputed political shenanigans behind the case. Newspapers around the country called for Siegelman’s release.
Then the story got even stranger. The judge who handled it, and whose bias against Siegelman was apparent to most observers but was hastily covered up by his colleagues in black robes, has since been forced to resign in disgrace.
He assaulted his wife in an Atlanta hotel and then lied about it to law-enforcement officials. The victim was, incidentally, both his former mistress and the court officer in the Siegelman case. Notwithstanding his resignation, judicial conference officials are so appalled by the judge’s misconduct that they are considering a recommendation that Congress impeach him anyway, to strip away his benefits.
In the meantime, Siegelman has sat in prison since September 2012, convicted of conduct that virtually no one believes is actually a crime. At the end of last year, he spent eight weeks segregated from the prison population, in a special-housing unit in the Louisiana facility where he’s serving his time — for having the audacity to protest his innocence in a radio talk show conducted from the prison. (According to Bureau of Prisons policy, prisoners are not permitted to claim publicly that they’re innocent, even when the evidence clearly establishes that they are.)
The pardon and clemency power is clearly the right way to approach this matter. But there is an obstacle: associate deputy attorney general David Margolis, the senior-most career attorney in the Justice Department. Margolis has intervened numerous times to block internal inquiries into media reports of political conspiracies behind the Siegelman prosecution, according to several highly placed sources at the department. He personally pushed back against conflict-of-interest complaints filed against the U.S. attorney who brought the prosecution, whose husband was a principal funder and adviser of Siegelman’s political adversary.
Margolis wrote a decision that found no wrongdoing on her part — in the face of an enormous body of evidence to the contrary.
Margolis also silenced a whistleblower in the prosecution team, threatening disciplinary action over disclosures, all as part of an effort to stem embarrassing media leaks. As one Justice Department source told me, “David thinks the way DOJ managed this case, if brought to light, would do real harm to the reputation of the department. He’s obviously right about that.”
In the current pardons structure, the president turns to the Justice Department’s pardons attorney for guidance on pardons and clemency. That pardons attorney, at present, reports to Margolis. For the moment, that would seem to dampen any hopes for a pardon or commutation of sentence.
The rank injustice of this case screams out for direct action by the White House, and for bypassing the Justice Department, whose conflict of interest make it an unreliable adviser to the president in such circumstances.
Washington Post, Former Alabama governor Don Siegelman sent to solitary confinement, Robert Barnes, April 29, 2016. Former Alabama governor Don E. Siegelman was sent to solitary confinement this week at the Louisiana facility in which he is imprisoned on political corruption charges, according to his son Joseph Siegelman. Siegelman, 70, was quoted extensively in a Washington Post article this week on former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, whose 2014 conviction on public corruption charges was reviewed by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
An official at the prison said the incident report was about a T-shirt that Siegelman sold on eBay, which was mentioned in The Post article and had been reported on in Alabama media. An unknown bidder paid $4,500 for it, and the proceeds are supposed to go toward completing a documentary about Siegelman’s case called “Atticus vs. the Architect.” According to the note Siegelman posted during the eBay auction, the T-shirts can be purchased at the prison commissary. Alabama media also reported on the sale.
Washington Post, Trump in position to reshape judiciary with more than 100 vacancies, Philip Rucker and Robert Barnes, Dec. 25, 2016. Donald Trump is set to inherit an uncommon number of vacancies in the federal courts in addition to the open Supreme Court seat, giving the president-elect a monumental opportunity to reshape the judiciary after taking office. The estimated 103 judicial vacancies that President Obama is expected to hand over to Trump in the Jan. 20 transition of power is nearly double the 54 openings Obama found eight years ago following George W. Bush’s presidency.
Confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominees slowed to a crawl after Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. Obama White House officials blame Senate Republicans for what they characterize as an unprecedented level of obstruction in blocking the Democratic president’s court picks. The result is a multitude of openings throughout the federal circuit and district courts that will allow the new Republican president to quickly make a wide array of lifetime appointments.
State gun control laws, abortion restrictions, voter laws, anti-discrimination measures and immigrant issues are all matters that are increasingly heard by federal judges and will be influenced by the new composition of the courts. Trump has vowed to choose ideologues in the mold of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon — a prospect that has activists on the right giddy.
The Supreme Court vacancy created by Scalia’s death in February was a motivating issue for many conservative voters, especially evangelical Christians, to turn out for Trump. Senate Republicans refused to hold even a hearing on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, for the Scalia seat. Democrats accuse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, of intentionally denying Obama’s nominees a fair hearing and running out the clock in hopes that a Republican would succeed him, as Trump has.
Twenty-five of Obama’s court nominees were pending on the Senate floor, after having been approved out of the committee with bipartisan support, but did not get a vote before the Senate ended its two-year term before the holidays, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Washington Post, Roberts steers clear of controversy, praises district judges in year-end report, Robert Barnes, Dec. 31, 2016. The federal courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular have been a focal point of the contentious 2016 election campaign, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. continued to steer well clear of controversy in his year-end report issued Saturday.
Roberts, shown in an official photo, did not mention that the court has been shorthanded since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February nor the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to hold a hearing for President Obama’s nominee to the court, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland. That action kept the seat open for an appointment by President-elect Donald Trump, and will retain a conservative majority of Republican nominees on the Supreme Court.
Instead, Roberts used his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary to focus on what he said was the underappreciated role of federal district judges, who conduct trials and serve at the first level of the justice system.
The estimated 103 judicial vacancies that Obama is expected to hand over to Trump in the Jan. 20 transition of power is nearly double the 54 openings Obama found eight years ago following George W. Bush’s presidency.
“While the Supreme Court is often the focus of public attention, our system of justice depends fundamentally on the skill, hard work, and dedication of those outside the limelight,” Roberts wrote.
Trump has the chance to fill an uncommon number of vacancies in the federal courts in addition to the open Supreme Court seat, giving him a monumental opportunity to reshape the judiciary after taking office.