• February 13, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In reality most likely did not expect landmark reform of the filibuster to usher in halcyon days of bipartisanship over executive branch nominations in the Senate. Though that reform did help U.S. Senators overcome partisan-led obstruction of some of President Obama’s judicial nominations, such as those to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, it was hardly going to radically change the way the current Senate functions.

    There remain some executive branch positions that conservatives in the Senate see no urgency in filling, such as a leader for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. And so President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile, a highly regarded attorney especially in the civil rights field, was almost inevitable to draw some kind of opposition. Primarily some Senate Republicans and conservative pundits have sought to scuttle Adegbile’s nomination by disparaging some of his work at the venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF). Specifically some opponents of Adegbile’s nomination argue he is unfit to serve because of LDF’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted killer facing a death sentence.

    But Adegbile’s nomination is advancing – the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote earlier this month moved his nomination to the Senate floor – and doing so because of widespread and bipartisan pushback from legal professionals and advocates.

    For example a letter from Supreme Court Bar attorneys of differing political persuasions exposed as wobbly the opponents’ arguments against Adegbile’s nomination. The group’s letter also highlighted the importance of ensuring constitutional due process in capital punishment cases. (Some Missouri state attorneys prosecuting death penalty cases would do well to read the letter for that reason alone.)

    The Supreme Court Bar’s lawyers noted that all the “federal courts reviewing Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case ruled, repeatedly and unanimously, that he was entitled to a new death sentencing hearing free of constitutional error.” Subsequently Abu-Jamal was resentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.

    But Adegbile’s leadership at LDF, where he also defended before the Supreme Court the Voting Rights Act, should not disqualify him from serving an important leadership role in the DOJ, the Supreme Court lawyers noted. “It is well-established that even the most unpopular defendant requires such representation, particularly when he or she is facing capital punishment.”

  • March 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    People mired in poverty do not make a powerful political constituency. Indeed they are and remain marginalized, partly because one of the nation’s major political parties is beholden to the interests of the superrich and obsessed with slashing entitlements.

    So 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that it is a fundamental right for indigent defendants in criminal trials to be provided counsel, it is hardly surprising that far too many states have shirked their constitutional obligation and made a shameful mess of the nation’s indigent defense system.

    In the landmark opinion, Justice Hugo Black cited the text of the Sixth Amendment that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” Black also rejected earlier Supreme Court precedent that held the Sixth Amendment’s call for a right to counsel for indigent defendants could not be applied to the states. Instead, Black found that the right to counsel was a fundamental one that states are obligated to protect, because of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars the states from depriving people -- even those with little means or the marginalized -- of liberty.

    Many leading constitutional scholars and public interest groups have long called for Congress to do more to ensure that the states fulfill a constitutional obligation. They’ve done so because many states have underfunded public defenders' offices or passed laws requiring indigent defendants to pay fees to obtain a public defender.

    In an ACS Issue Brief, Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Lauren Sudeall Lucas, a law professor at Georgia State University, called on federal lawmakers to seriously step up efforts to ensure the promise of Gideon:

    The federal government could take an active role in improving state-run indigent defense programs by: (1) making grants directly to state or public interest programs demonstrating best practices or attached to certain minimum requirements regarding training, caseloads, and supervision; (2) conditioning funds awarded to law enforcement and prosecution agencies on a showing that the indigent defense system has reached a satisfactory level of functioning; and (3) establishing a National Center for Defense Services, similar to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The federal government has funded training, but its limited value in a system that suffers from such great deficiencies must be recognized. The federal government could also seek the authority to bring lawsuits to compel states to comply with the Sixth Amendment and support private litigation efforts by filing of amicus briefs. All of these tools will likely be necessary to vindicate the Constitution in states like Georgia where improvements were slow in coming and are still woefully inadequate almost 50 years after Gideon was decided.

    University of Michigan Law School Professor Eve Brensike Primus in an ACS Issue Brief said the Department of Justice should also become more active in this area, arguing for a law that would “create the possibility of federal enforcement actions initiated by the DOJ against state actors who systematically violate defendants’ constitutional right to effective counsel. In these federal enforcement actions, DOJ would be authorized to seek appropriate equitable relief, including injunctive relief, to stop states from engaging in practices that result in these systemic violations.”


  • February 8, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration is bending very little to accommodate the mounting calls for the release of legal reasoning for targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad. So far the president has only agreed to provide legal documents regarding the use of drones and targeted killings to a couple of congressional intelligence committees.

    But Senate Judiciary Committee leaders, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a Feb. 7 letter to President Obama are calling for more information.  

    The white paper leaked earlier this week, apparently providing a summary of a document crafted by a few attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) advanced wobbly -- some have said shoddy -- arguments that the administration’s counterterrorism policy, especially its use of drones, does not subvert constitutional principles. The white paper, in part, concluded that the president could order a targeted killing if the suspected terrorist posed an “imminent threat to the country,” capture would prove “infeasible,’ and that the operation “would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

    Constitutional law experts, like Georgetown’s David Cole blasted the white paper, concluding it allows for the federal government to “kill its own citizens in secret.” The drone war, he explained has significantly reduced “disincentives to killing.

    Leahy and Grassley are not terribly impressed with the white paper either, saying in their letter, that it “was not an adequate substitute for the underlying legal analysis that we believed had been prepared by the Department’s [DOJ] Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) ….”

    The senators also note that the legal arguments in the white paper centered on core constitutional concerns, such as the Fourth Amendment (bars government from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and the Fifth Amendment (the Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides or is supposed to provide for a fair hearing before government can “deprive a person of life, liberty, or property.")  The Senate Judiciary Committee also has “direct oversight jurisdiction over the Department, including OLC.”

    For a president who came to power promising a more transparent government – Obama had been a sharp critic of the prior administration’s proclivity for secrecy – it seems that the legal analysis apparently calling for an outlandish extension of executive power should be made public for all, not just a few senators.


  • February 6, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The increasingly disturbing use of Reaper and Predator drones to kill suspected terrorists, and too often civilians alongside them, was apparently given the green light by some DOJ lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). But that’s not for certain since the Obama administration rarely talks about the drone war.

    But a leaked white paper apparently crafted by lawyers in the OLC may be a summary of a more expansive document – the ACLU is suing to find out. The paper, however, as The New York Times and others have quickly noted advances convoluted and radical arguments for an outrageous expansion of executive power.

    Constitutional law scholar and Georgetown University law school professor David Cole, in a piece for NYR blog explores, “how we made killing easy.” And Cole notes by the way that the Obama administration is battling “tooth and nail” the ACLU’s effort to force the release of the entire  legal document.

    The white paper argues that an informed, high-ranking government official can order the killing of a U.S. citizen integral to or associated with Al-Qaeda abroad if the person poses an “imminent threat of violent attack” against the country, the person is unlikely to be captured and that the killing operation would be conducted in accordance with laws governing war.

    The brief paper tosses aside due process in a strained effort to justify executive branch power, with essentially no oversight, to order the killing of terrorist suspects, even U.S. citizens.


  • July 10, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has launched investigations of efforts by a string of state governors to make voting a major difficulty for potential voters, especially minorities, the poor, students and the elderly.

    Today, before the NAACP Annual Convention, Holder delved into his commitment to safeguard the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in the process tore into the tawdry efforts by states, such as Texas, to limit the right to vote.

    In prepared text of his speech, Holder focused on the onerous Texas voter ID law, which the DOJ has not granted approval of. “After close review, the Department found that this law would be harmful to minority voters – and we rejected its implementation,” Holder said.

    He continued, “Under the proposed law, concealed handgun licenses would be an acceptable form of photo ID – but student IDs would not. Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them – and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them.”

    According to the AP, Holder veered off script and said, “We call those poll taxes,” which are unconstitutional.