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U.S. Supreme Court's Reputation Sinks Into Toilet With Its Refusal To Review Paul Minor Convictions

Posted on the 25 February 2013 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

U.S. Supreme Court's Reputation Sinks Into Toilet With Its Refusal To Review Paul Minor Convictions

Paul Minor

The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it would not grant certiorari review in the case of Paul Minor, a former trial lawyer from Mississippi. Citizens who closely followed the Bush v. Gore debacle after the 2000 presidential election already know the high court's reputation is in tatters. Any doubters ought to be convinced by the refusal to consider the Minor convictions, which probably are due to be overturned on at least a dozen grounds.
No. 1 on the list, for purposes of the SCOTUS petition, was that the high court's ruling in a 2010 case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling means the jury instructions in Minor were incorrect, and the convictions no longer rest on good law.
Minor's legal team, led by criminal-justice expert Albert Alschuler, makes a powerful argument to that effect in a 237-page petition filed with the high court. (The full petition can be viewed at the end of this post.) There can be no serious debate that Alschuler is correct, and here is why: Minor and two codefendants--former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield--were tried under the federal honest-services fraud statute and convicted on alleged violations of Mississippi state bribery law. But SCOTUS used Skilling v. U.S., 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010) to establish a uniform national standard in honest-services cases and found that they must be grounded in federal law, not state laws.
Even the government has conceded in briefs and oral arguments that Skilling made the jury instructions in Minor incorrect, and that means the argument for overturning the convictions is about as close to cut and dried as the Supreme Court will ever find. So why did the justices refuse to hear the case? The message to the public seems to be this: "Even though this case was decided by bad law, and both sides agree on that, we simply can't be bothered with it. Next."
Is it any wonder that many Americans have lost faith in once-exalted institutions?
If the rule of law still meant anything in the US of A, the Minor convictions would be overturned on the Skilling issue alone. But Alschuler's petition for certiorari review provides alarming evidence that problems with the Minor case go way beyond that. That evidence reaches the level of frightening when you consider that Whitfield remains in federal prison, and Minor soon will be sent from a Pensacola prison to a halfway house in New Orleans to carry out his term. Teel was released in 2012 after completing his sentence.
Courts that are riddled with corruption and incompetence have ugly consequences for real Americans. Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield have received a graduate education in that fact of postmodern life.
Were these gentlemen convicted in a trial court that was fair, impartial, and firmly grounded in the law? Upon reading Alschuler's petition, a reasonable person can only respond, "Hell, no!" The U.S. Supreme Court, of course, apparently could not be bothered to read the petition.
The most shocking revelations come in pages 8-11, where Alschuler addresses the instructions that U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate gave the jury.
First, Alschuler points out that the instructions included the following language:
. . . you can fix it in your mind that when you see honest services, that you know we are talking about an alleged violation of the bribery laws of the State of Mississippi.

We now know that Skilling made that language an inaccurate statement of the law. In essence, the U.S. Supreme Court's own actions, in Skilling, made those words outdated and unlawful. Will the high court fix the problem on behalf of the Minor defendants--and other citizens who might someday find themselves convicted based on bad law? Nope.
Problems with the jury instructions in Minor go way beyond Skilling-related issues. Alschuler drives that home with this:
The instructions continued, "[T]he government must prove . . . that the particular defendant entered into a corrupt agreement for Paul S. Minor to provide the particular judge with things of value specifically with the intent to influence the action or judgment of the judge. . . ." They added, "To constitute the offense of offering a bribe, there need not be a mutual intent on the part of both the giver and the offeree or accepter of the bribe."

That language is likely to leave even a highly educated person scratching his head. One can only wonder how it affected the average federal juror in Mississippi. To put it bluntly, the instruction makes no frickin' sense--and Alschuler points that out with this not-so-subtle statement:
The court made no effort to reconcile its statement that an agreement was necessary with its statement that no mutual intent was required.

How do two people reach an agreement without having mutual intent? God only knows. But we send citizens to prison based on jury instructions such as these. And we have appellate courts and a Supreme Court that let it happen.
In a rare example of a lawyer communicating candidly about the ineptness of a federal court, Alschuler writes on page 26 of his petition:
". . . the district court's direction was cast in extraordinarily confusing language. It is virtually impossible to divine the instruction's meaning, but it appears to require an agreement between two people about what one of them will later intend. . . . The jurors could only have thrown up their hands."

No serious individual could argue, either before or after Skilling, that the Paul Minor case was correctly decided; even the government doesn't argue that. And yet, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the honest-services convictions, and the U.S. Supreme Court washed its hands of the matter. It all is one more sign that Americans should have no confidence in their justice system.
SCOTUS, in essence, is sending this message: "Welcome to the 'wild, wild West' of American justice. It's the environment we have, and it now bears our stamp of approval. If some of you decide to take matters of justice into your own hands, have at it--and good luck."
Paul Minor-SCOTUS Petition2 by Roger Shuler

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