Jun 22, 2011

John Edwards, Justice and the Rule of Lenity

Political Persecution in an electoral swing state? Why no questions?

As we read of the federal prosecution of John Edwards, we ought consider Scott Horton's Primer in Political Prosecutions, mustering some skepticism about the federal government launching such a heavy-handed criminal case.

Bloomberg reports, "John Edwards, the former U.S. presidential candidate accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions to hide an extramarital affair, should face an October criminal trial, a federal prosecutor said."

The criminal case is U.S. v. Edwards, 11-00161, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina.

The "federal grand jury indicted Edwards this month on charges of accepting illegal campaign funds, conspiracy and making false statements," reports Bloomberg.

On June 10, NBC 17 reported, "The U.S. case against John Edwards includes 300,000 pages of documents ... ."

Guess the defense will have to do some quick Summer reading.

U.S. Attorney George Holding, a George W. Bush appointee, resigned in early June, just after Edwards was indicted.

Holding said not one word about the U.S. Atty scandal, a forgotten memory in American corporate media.

Edwards was indicted on June 3, at which time Edwards blasted the prosecution, reports McClatchy News.

A former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission issued a statement through Edwards’ legal team that called the charges 'misguided' and based on an 'erroneous' reading of the law.

"A criminal prosecution of a candidate on these facts would be outside anything I would expect after decades of experience with the campaign finance laws," said Scott E. Thomas, an FEC commissioner for 20 years.

Edwards' case has the hallmarks of another corrupt Bush-Cheney persecution crafted by a young U.S. Attorney with a political agenda using federal law in a creative, brand-new way to get a political opponent.

Will the new U.S. Atty halt the prosecution? We should be watching and asking questions.

Like Wisconsin's Steven Biskupic's politically motivated prosecution [among many] of Georgia Thompson with the GOP press in tow, the force of the federal government is wielded with very little comment in this most depoliticised of countries.

From the Huffington Post:

Holding is a member of the prominent Smithfield banking family that controls much of First Citizens BancShares Inc., the parent company of First Citizens Bank. Plans of his resignation were first reported by The News and Observer of Raleigh on June 3.
Rule of Lenity

Here's a look back at the persecution of an innocent woman in Wisconsin, Georgia Thompson, and a repeat of the media's disinclination to challenge federal prosecutions.

The opinion [overturning the conviction of an innocent woman persecuted by U.S. Atty Stephen Biskupic] notes that this 'open-ended quality' and '(h)aziness' of the [criminal] statute should never be used by prosecutors to bring creative and novel prosecutions, per the 'Rule of Lenity.'

The Rule of Lenity, as [Chief Judge Frank H.] Easterbrook notes, is the judicial doctrine that 'ambiguity in criminal legislation be read against the prosecutor, lest the judiciary create, in common-law fashion, offenses that have never received legislative approbation … .'

Let’s translate.

Prosecutors should not invent crimes by stretching laws to the breaking point so they can bring prosecutions under our laws that were not made to ban imaginary crimes dreamed up by creative prosecutors—or in Biskupic’s case, a corrupt prosecutor seeking the favor of Karl Rove.

Prosecutorial Discretion

But we do have a check on hazy, open-ended laws, so that prosecutions of innocents never have to reach an appeals court.

It’s called 'prosecutorial discretion,' but it’s in short supply nowadays, and Biskupic is not alone in his refusal to exercise it (liberals especially like to use the prosecutors’ office as vehicles for their political careers, too often excluding prosecutorial discretion in the conduct of their offices).

As discussed in an address, The Federal Prosecutor, by the great jurist Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954), prosecutorial discretion—measured and well-considered decision-making by the prosecutor on whom he or she is going to prosecute—requires that that prosecutors 'select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain.'

Jackson notes that a 'sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims ... .'

When Biskupic (still) defends his prosecution against the innocent Thompson by noting he was able to convince a jury and two trial judges of his view of the charges, he misses Jackson’s point that Biskupic should exercise prosecutorial discretion precisely because the prosecutor’s office is immensely powerful and persuasive, and that 'the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.'

Thompson and Biskupic’s current voting-fraud prosecution victims would agree.
Holding was one of the last U.S. attys held over from the Bush-Cheney regime.

Nothing Holding says should be trusted, certainly not his hazy, novel prosecution of a political figure launched on the eve of a presidential election in an important swing state.

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