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In the Skilling (PDF) case, the Supreme Court, moved by a skeptical view of the Justice Department’s use of “honest-services theft” theories to prosecute corruption cases, sharply hemmed in the practice by saying that the statute only covered “bribes and kick-backs.” Three of the justices, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy, would have gone much further. Indeed, during oral argument several of them took the Justice Department to task for its at times attenuated interpretations of the statute, with Kennedy arguing that the Department’s take would criminalize roughly half the governmental workforce. In rendering their decision, the Court was plainly inviting the Justice Department to rethink its overreaching stance—just as it suggested that a significant number of convictions the Department had secured had to be reviewed—and a large number of them will certainly be set aside. I’ve been studying this issue for some time, and–while I would have come out with Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy–I think the Court hit the mark with its ruling.
The Justice Department, however, has responded with wails of denial and by pressing Congress to overturn the Skilling decision. Doing the Department’s bidding, Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy has offered a new bill, the “Honest Services Restoration Act,” which would allow the prosecution of “undisclosed self-dealing.” It was the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.
Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions immediately exploited the absurdity of the fix. The Supreme Court came close to striking the old statute entirely because of its hopelessly vague language. So the fix is to outlaw “undisclosed self-dealings?” “That’s a pretty broad statute, it really is,” Sessions noted. Indeed, Leahy’s bill is even vaguer than the original statute. He and the Justice Department are demonstrating a stubborn refusal to take the guidance that the Supreme Court has offered.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer appeared at the hearing to press the Department’s case for restoration of powers. “One of the tools that we have relied upon for more than two decades was significantly eroded,” Breuer stated. He asked for enactment of the new bill to “fill the gap.”
The hearing demonstrated remarkably little serious engagement with the issues presented in the legislation. No one is going to stand before a Senate committee and present arguments in support of corruption. But the honest-services theft theory has been the subject of valuable criticism both in the legal academy and among practitioners. Hardly a hint of this criticism was to be found in the Judiciary Committee hearing. In essence the criticism presents precisely the points that the Supreme Court validated: the statute itself is vague, its interface with state statutes is deeply flawed, and a review of high-profile cases brought by federal prosecutors over the last decade has shown an alarming measure of abuse, much of it transparently partisan. Misapplication of the honest-services theft statute by federal prosecutors has done severe damage to the reputation and morale of the Justice Department. That’s a point that Inspector General Glenn Fine recently made. (PDF) It should also have been bitingly clear to Breuer on Tuesday, as he offered public condolences to the family of one of the public integrity prosecutors who committed suicide while awaiting the outcome of a court-appointed inquiry into the unethical and possibly illegal fashion in which the prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens was pursued.
No doubt the Justice Department would like another blunderbuss in their gun cabinet. But their arsenal is already very potent–in this area, Congress only very rarely denies them anything they ask for. It would be a serious mistake for Congress simply to reverse Skilling without even taking a second to look into the issues that the Court (and particularly Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas) thoughtfully raised. In addition to evidence of need, the Justice Department should offer up proof that it has heard the criticisms, understands them, and is taking steps to rectify its internal problems. So far, however, Breuer offers us only denial, coupled with thinly veiled threats against those who dare to criticize the performance of his division. I don’t doubt Breuer’s good faith and determination to get this right. On the other hand, he has a far bigger cleanup job on his hands than he is willing to acknowledge.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
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