Other courts

  • July 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman a slew of groups and individuals called for calm, for a jury had spoken -- a jury bound to adhere to laws that protect the aggressor, one who took the life a young black man in Sanford, Fla.

    Well fine, but we don’t have to or shouldn’t stay silent about Florida laws that provide too much protection, in the name of self-defense, to the aggressor and too often the racist. And Florida is not alone. More than 20 states have self-defense laws that give knee-jerk racial-profilers like George Zimmerman the ability to kill and get by with it. As The New York Times editorial board put it, Stand Your Ground laws combined with weak concealed carry-laws, work "essentially to self-deputize anyone with a Kel-Tec 9 millimeter and a grudge.” Noting the ridiculousness of Florida’s self-defense laws, The Times’ editorial concluded, “If only Florida could give him [Trayvon Martin] back his life as easily as it is giving back George Zimmerman’s gun.”

    Charles Blow, Andrew Cohen, Brittney Cooper, Ekow N. Yankah, The New York Times editorial board and many others have already gone where the attorneys in this case said they would not – race did play in this whole affair and the laws that ultimately allowed Zimmerman to target a young, unarmed black man, confront him and then kill him. These laws and others are part of an entrenched social disapproval of minorities. Zimmerman apologists cry that the matter had nothing whatsoever to do with race -- it was about a so-called neighborhood watchman defending himself.

    In a piece for the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen writes, “What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.”

    Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which provides significant legal protection to persons who kill others outside their homes claiming self-defense, may not have been specifically relied upon by the lawyers of Zimmerman who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager in Florida. It did play a role in the instructions given to the jury and affected the mindset of police. As The New York Times reporter Lizette Alvarez, pointed out it helped Zimmerman, along with other outside influences typically not available to the vast majority of criminal defendants. That law, as University of Miami law school professor Tamara Lave said, did keep Zimmerman from being arrested and charged with a crime for some time.

  • July 16, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013) and an assistant professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. 

    The debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman jury verdict continues to reverberate as is typical of most high profile, racially divisive cases in this country.  Even though the criminal case is over, the issues of race, class, gender, and justice remain loudly contested in a way that will not likely quiet soon.      

    Today, the six citizens who made the difficult decision in the Zimmerman case are no doubt reeling from the discordant critique of their verdict.  These were ordinary citizens plucked at random and then selected to sit at the fault-lines of race relations in 21st Century America.  As other citizens receive their jury summons today and in the future, it is worth considering the situation of the Zimmerman jurors.

    First, much has been made about the jurors’ gender.  The early headlines of most major news outlets proclaimed “an all women jury.”  Five white and one Hispanic woman were thus immediately examined for how gender might affect the jury.  Forgotten were the historic and decades-long suffrage struggles to get any women (let alone all women) to sit on a jury.  Instead, modern gender stereotypes and speculations were tossed about as to how gender might affect the verdict.  Well, we now know the verdict, but can anyone say gender had any impact?  Time may tell as the anonymous jurors reveal more about their deliberations, but likely gender did not play any direct role.  Certainly, it was not because the jury was all women that the verdict resulted as it did.  Commentators from both genders have weighed in on how the verdict was defensible under the existing Florida law. 

    Second, forgotten in the media tumult is the sacrifice made by the jurors who were sequestered during trial.  Sequestering juries is no longer the norm in most places, and with the exception of big media cases, largely avoided.  But, for the weeks of jury service, those six citizens were completely serving their community.  This is no small sacrifice.  To be completely at the whim of the court system schedule, away from work, family, and life responsibilities in order to judge a stranger’s problem is a tremendous service.  Further, to deliberate for 16 hours is no small feat.  When is the last time you held a 16 hour meeting to discuss and decide on a problem?  This type of commitment should be validated not vilified, as has unfortunately been the case from some quarters.

  • July 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The secret court that hears government requests for spying on Americans' communications is a durable check against government overreach because it’s made up of esteemed, independent federal court judges and the lawyers representing the nation’s intelligence apparatus are really good at their jobs. At least that’s the take of a large number of government officials who support  sweeping surveillance programs, which the secret has approved.

    Last year the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) did not deny or reject the 1,789 government FISA applications. Apparently 40 of applications were modified, but since the FISA Court’s actions are secret, we don’t know in what why they were altered. In 2010, Salon reported, “there were 1,511 applications, of which five were withdrawn and 14 modified.”

    This week James Comey, President Obama’s nominee to head the FBI, told a Senate committee that the FISA Court is no “rubber stamp” and that people just don’t understand the highly secretive court, George Zornick reported for The Nation. Comey also maintained that another reason the FISA Court rarely rejects government demands for more information about Americans is that the government’s attorneys work really hard to put together sound applications.

    But just as this defense of the FISA Court as a serious check is being built, more information is seeping out about the secret court’s work. The New York Times reported that the Court does more than secretly grant general warrants for the NSA to sweep up mass amounts of information about Americans. It is also issuing opinions on “broad constitutional questions and establishing important judicial precedents with almost no public scrutiny, according to current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.”

    Ten of the FISA Court’s 11 independent federal judges, Salon’s Joan Walsh reports are appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The judges Roberts appointed are ones named to the bench by Republican presidents. “Over the last 12 years, they approved 20,909 surveillance and property search warrants and rejected only 10 government requests,” she added.

  • July 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may be nearing a vote to alter procedures around the filibuster, which Senate Republicans have used over and over again to kill consideration of major legislation and seriously delay or scuttle President Obama’s nominations to the federal bench and to executive branch openings. For that matter, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote the Senate Republicans “have filibustered almost everything, betting that voters will blame Democrats for the dysfunction in the Congress as much as they blame the GOP.”

    Reid, according to The New York Times is considering asking his Democratic peers in the Senate to vote to “take the exceptional step of barring the minority party from filibustering presidential appointees.” The report continues, however, that such action would not “affect filibusters of legislation or judicial nominees.” At the moment there are still more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench. The vacancies have hovered at 80 or above for years now. (See JudicialNominations.org for more information about the vacancies.)  

    Yesterday, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans signaled they were preparing to delay or block President’s Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

    Earlier this year Reid, after threatening a similar action on the filibuster, instead entered into an agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that has been widely panned as ineffective.

    Reid, from the Senate floor, blasted McConnell for failing to adhere to the modest agreement. “Exactly three weeks after Senator McConnell committed to process nominees consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate, he led Republicans in an unprecedented filibuster of a highly qualified nominee for Secretary of Defense,” Reid said. “Nothing could be a starker violation of a commitment to return to the norms and traditions of the Senate than launching the first-ever filibuster of a Secretary of Defense.”

    Reid ticked off other executive branch and federal agency positions that Republicans are stalling or threatening to block, such as nominations to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.

  • July 10, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Because of the heighted partisanship that has engulfed the U.S. Senate, President Obama has had great difficulty filling vacant seats on the federal bench and within the executive branch, even with nominees that the Republican Party would typically embrace. Case in point is the nomination of a Patricia Millett, an accomplished appellate court attorney who has argued more than 30 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, to fill one of three vacant seats on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. As Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser notes Millett also raked in more than “a million dollars last year representing wealthy clients at the elite law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Field,” and has defended the pro-business Supreme Court as actually impartial on corporate interests that have come before it.

    But Millett and the other nominees to the D.C. Circuit are on a difficult path to confirmation, largely because of Republican’s desire to continue wreaking havoc on President Obama’s agenda, regardless of how moderate it is.

    July 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee opened the battle with a hearing on Millett’s nomination, which showcased a bit about her qualifications, but even more about Republicans’ political machinations.  

    The hearing, as Legal Times’ Todd Ruger put it had little to do with Millett’s qualifications to serve on the federal bench. “The fight about her nomination” to the D.C. Circuit “isn’t about her.” Instead Ruger noted Millett spent most of her time “listening to Republicans explain the political rationale behind why they will fight against her confirmation.”