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The main question regarding Judge Mark Fuller’s behavior in the Siegelman case is whether it was appropriate for him to have taken the case in the first place. So I discussed the issues with Professor David Luban, University Professor and Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University, and a well known legal ethicist. Luban is the author of Legal Ethics and Human Dignity, issued this year by Cambridge University Press, among other works, and is an occasional contributor to Harper’s Magazine.
1. Judge Fuller is a Republican, and before coming to the bench he worked on a number of Republican campaigns. He served as a member of the Alabama Republican Executive Committee at a time when Don Siegelman was a Democratic state office holder. Was it proper for Fuller to sit as a judge in the Siegelman prosecution?
There’s a well-accepted legal standard for when a judge should disqualify himself from a case: the judge should bow out when his impartiality can reasonably be questioned. That’s the standard in both the judicial code of ethics and in federal law. The point is to maintain confidence in the fairness and integrity of the legal system. Keeping that in mind, the bare fact that Judge Fuller is a Republican clearly isn’t enough to raise questions. Most judges belong to one party or the other, and a lot got their job on the bench because they were active party members. We expect that they can put mere party sympathy aside when they try cases. But on these facts, Judge Fuller was a lot more than just an active party member. He was a electoral strategist, an executive committee member, and an anti-Siegelman campaigner. How can a reasonable person fail to have doubts about his impartiality? If you’ve spent years organizing the “Beat the Yankees” Club, you should not be umpiring a Yankees game–even if you think you can call the game honestly.
2. In addition to his political engagement, a Siegelman appointee questioned some extraordinary payments Fuller made while he was a district attorney. There was a litigation in which Fuller testified, and the court ruled against him and for the state retirement agency. Fuller was quoted as stating that this was “politically motivated.” Does this raise any questions?
If Judge Fuller complained that it was “politically motivated,” it sounds like he might be blaming Siegelman for it. Without knowing the context it’s hard to tell whether the judge was complaining only about the appointee, or the governor as well. If the latter, it means that the judge had expressed a grudge against Siegelman and obviously should not be trying his case.
3. Judge Fuller appears to derive most of his income from a closely-held business in which he remains the controlling shareholder. The business is almost entirely involved with government contracts, with the Department of Defense and Department of Justice as contractors. What is your reaction when you look at the recusal motion, in which this was set out in some detail, the Justice Department’s response, and Judge Fuller’s ruling?
Generally, the standards for recusal motions are tough, to discourage parties from judge-shopping. I started reading these papers with that viewpoint—namely that the defendant had an almost impossible case to make. But the more I read the papers, the more I was persuaded that this actually was one of those rare cases where the burden was met. Remember: the legal standard is whether you can reasonably question the judge’s impartiality. If so, the law requires the judge to disqualify himself. This is not a run-of-the-mill criminal case where a judge’s commercial side-dealings with the government would not raise a question about pro-government bias. This one is a politically charged case involving a former governor in which political leaders in Washington, D.C., who ultimately exercise tremendous control over the process of military procurement contracts, are likely to take great interest. Given the amount of money Judge Fuller’s company gets from government contracts, any reasonable person would question how impartial he could be. He should not have taken this case, and with a recusal motion made, he had no option but to drop out.
What amazes me about these facts is that they combine past political activism against the governor, a possible grudge against the governor, and the judge’s company’s financial dependence on the government’s good graces. If they’re right (I don’t have any independent knowledge of that), any one by itself would raise reasonable questions about the judge’s ability to be impartial. Taken together, we have a perfect storm. Under these circumstances, impartiality would take superhuman self-control, and we don’t expect judges to be superhuman. The recusal standard is designed so that we don’t have to expect it.
4. You read the Justice Department’s papers, which were filed both by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Montgomery and by the Public Integrity Section at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
I was troubled by the papers filed by the Department of Justice. Half the argument is an ad hominem attack on their adversary’s attorneys for daring to question the government’s fairness. Without offering any evidence, it accuses them of bad faith, and it’s loaded with insulting adjectives. The motion makes it look like the government is blowing smoke to deflect attention away from the real issue.
But rhetorical overkill isn’t the main problem. The most troubling problem is that the Justice Department’s Professional Integrity Section joined this response. That was a real lapse of professional judgment. PIN (as it’s called) is in charge of policing public officials. That includes judges as well as elected officials. Under some circumstances, PIN could be called on to make an independent after-the-fact assessment of Judge Fuller’s conduct. By signing onto the Justice Department’s submission at this point, before there’s been a hearing on the recusal motion, the Public Integrity Section makes it virtually impossible for it to do its oversight job later, because it’s already staked out a position on the case before hearing all sides of the argument.
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm
An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath
No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am
How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?
No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am
Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011 for “furtive movements”:
The faces of Lego people were growing angrier.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature