A clemency proposal that deserves strong support from President Obama and AG Holder

A helpful reader brought to my attention a piece on the New York Times editorial page that proposes a complete reworking of the clemency process. Specifically, it proposes a broadly representative and non-partisan commission to make recommendations to the President about pardons and clemency.

Given my awful experience with Hamedah Hasan (Merciless), I urge President Obama and Attorney General Holder to get behind this proposal, and strongly so. They should so if only to publicly proclaim “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” – “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” A public expiation of their manifest sins would do them and the rest of us (not to mention those who deserve mercy) a world of good. If Obama and Holder aren’t total hypocrites they will do so.

I reprint the piece in full:

On Jan. 20, 2009, in his last moments as president, George W. Bush gave Barack Obama a hard-earned bit of wisdom: whatever you do, he said, pick a pardon policy and stick with it.

It was sage advice, yet, more than five years later, President Obama has not heeded it. As a result, as one former pardon attorney has said, the clemency power is “the least respected and most misunderstood” power a president has. Yet it is granted explicitly by the Constitution as a crucial backstop to undo an unjust conviction or to temper unreasonably harsh punishments approved by lawmakers. It also can restore basic rights, like the right to vote, that many people lose upon being convicted.

In the past, presidents made good use of it, but as tough-on-crime policies became more popular, the number of grants fell dramatically. Judging by the numbers, Mr. Obama, who has, so far, granted just 62 clemency petitions, is the least merciful president in modern history.

The Obama administration took a stab at remedying the situation in April when it replaced its feckless pardon attorney and announced that it would consider granting clemency to thousands of low-level drug offenders serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences. The effort, dubbed Clemency Project 2014, was a promising start, but it has already run into significant hurdles, most recently a ruling barring hundreds of federal public defenders from assisting inmates in filing their petitions.

Even if the project succeeds, it is a one-time fix that fails to address the core reasons behind the decades-long abandonment of the presidential power of mercy. A better solution would be a complete overhaul of the clemency process. First and foremost, this means taking it out of the hands of the Justice Department, where federal prosecutors with an inevitable conflict of interest recommend the denial of virtually all applications. Instead, give it to an independent commission that makes informed recommendations directly to the president.

That proposal, which has been made before, gets new attention in an upcoming article in the University of Chicago Law Review by two law professors, Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler. Such a commission’s membership, the authors write, must be politically balanced and have a wide range of perspectives, including those of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, inmates, academics, officials from corrections and law enforcement, and victims’ rights advocates.

This design would give the president bipartisan support in making what is often a politically sensitive decision. Particularly in a tough-on-crime age, the risk of even one person committing another crime is enough to deter grants of clemency across the board. That is another argument for a well-financed commission, which can collect data on the results of clemency grants — data that could then be used to better inform future decisions.

In several states that already have such commissions — such as Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Alabama — clemency decisions are more transparent, more predictable, and much more frequent than in the federal system.

Mr. Obama’s failure to wield the pardon power more forcefully is all the more frustrating when considered against the backdrop of endless accusations that he is exercising too much executive authority, sometimes — his critics say — arbitrarily if not illegally. In this case, he should take advantage of a crucial power that the Constitution unreservedly grants him.

The Editorial Board, It’s Time to Overhaul Clemency, New York Times, August 18, 2014.

RGK

Robert F. Rossiter Jr. will become a great federal trial judge in Nebraska if politics don’t get in the way

Judge John Gerrard was selected, and now serves with distinction, as a federal district judge. He replaced me. John was a nominal Democrat before his appointment. I was a nominal Republican before my appointment. When I announced a year in advance that I would take senior status, the senior US Senator was Ben Nelson, a Democrat. The junior US Senator was Mike Johanns, a Republican. Johanns fully cooperated with Nelson and President Obama and enthusiastically supported the appointment of Judge Gerrard. Gerrard was, by every measure, extraordinarily well qualified to serve as a federal district judge. The active support of Republican Senator Mike Johanns was an act of statesmanship and common sense and a continued commitment to the Nebraska tradition of putting highly qualified individuals on the federal trial bench without regard to raw partisanship.

Joe Bataillon, my wonderful colleague, will take senior status on or about October 1, 2014.  As I wrote shortly after Joe announced his intention to take senior status, I desperately hope that Joe’s replacement will not be a bozo.  If the White House cares about nominating a high qualified individual like John Gerrard to fill Joe Bataillon’s seat, then I hope the powers that be listen to Senator Johanns and Senator Fischer and not play politics with this critical nomination to our little court.

After a long and careful process, the two Republican US Senators have suggested to the President that he nominate a nominal Republican, Bob Rossiter. Both Democrats and Republicans were given a fair shot at convincing the Senators that they were the best person for the job no matter their past political affiliations. Rossiter came out on top, and for a good reason.

Low Res Color IMG_5297

Rossiter is 58 years old. He graduated from the Creighton Law School with honors. He was the Executive Editor of the law review. He served as a law clerk to a federal trial judge (Judge Beam, who is now a senior Circuit judge). He is the only lawyer in Nebraska who is both a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (State chair 2012-2014) and the American College of Labor and Employment Lawyers,  He has tons of federal trial experience. He is highly regarded by his peers. He was elected and served as the Chair of the Nebraska State Bar Association House of Delegates. Recognizing his prior service to the NSBA, Bob has now been selected as President-Elect Designate of the Association. Bob’s commitment to his community and church include service as a member of the Board of Directors of Girls Incorporated of Omaha, service as a member of the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities of Omaha, and service as Parish Council President of the St. Wenceslaus Parish.

On a personal note, I have known Bob for about a quarter of a century. I know of no finer or fairer person. Importantly, he shares my taste in fine food. Once a year or so, we have breakfast at the Hi-Way Diner in Lincoln. Hi-Way-Diner-Block-Logo-3x21-300x200If you like grease, as Bob and I do, there is no finer dining establishment.  I should not forget to add that by clicking here you can access the menu. I particularly recommend the #7 Biscuits & Sausage Gravy (Full Order $4.89/Half Order $3.29). Don’t skimp. Get the full order. You can’t go wrong either with the #9, Chicken Fried Steak with 2 Eggs & Magic Toast for $8.99. Be sure to add Hash Browns for $1.79.

Finally, and more seriously, I end with the thoughts of Carl Tobias the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who follows judicial nominations and the process related thereto more closely than virtually anyone else. Regarding the federal trial courts, Professor Tobias recently observed:

The judicial vacancy crisis must end. The federal bench has experienced nearly a ten percent vacancy rate over an unprecedented four and a half-year period. The substantial number and protracted character of those openings have imposed numerous detrimental effects. These phenomena have delayed the scheduling of jury trials in many civil cases and even propelled termination of some litigation because the Speedy Trial Act requires that criminal matters have precedence.

Professor Tobias concluded:

In sum, the 80 district court vacancies nationwide . . . undermine federal courts’ efforts to promptly, inexpensively, and equitably decide cases. Accordingly, President Obama must swiftly nominate, and the Senate expeditiously process, highly qualified, uncontroversial candidates. To facilitate this process, the White House should consult home state senators across the country and speedily nominate exceptional people for all vacancies. 

(Emphasis added.)

President Obama has been presented with a highly qualified, uncontroversial candidate by Nebraska’s US Senators. Just like Senator Johanns did when he enthusiastically supported Judge Gerrard, President Obama should set aside politics and do the right thing. That is, nominate the exceptionally well qualified Bob Rossiter to become the next United States District Judge for the District of Nebraska.

RGK

 

 

 

 

Merciless

Yesterday, I linked to SL&P and asked that you read Doug Berman’s post regarding President’s Obama’s newly announced policy, heralded by General Holder, to expand clemency for nonviolent drug dealers. Today, I write about my one utterly depressing experience with DOJ and the commutation process. I also criticize President Obama and Attorney General Holder for their tardy response to a national disgrace.

Preface

I loathe “crack.” I suppose that hatred comes from seeing up close the destruction of black communities caused by that cheap and effective drug. Having an aging and poor crack whore hang herself in a cell adjacent to the courtroom where I just pronounced a long sentence upon this poor woman perhaps provides a context for my strong views. Bestowing mercy on those predators who dealt drugs to that gal, even ones who are “nonviolent” (a term I find misleading), rubs me wrong and strongly so. But I also understand why Presidential clemency helps our criminal justice system dispense a needed degree of mercy by leavening sentences that now appear too long even for those who are unquestionably criminals whose behavior has done great harm.

Stephanie Lomax, now known as Hamedah Ali Hasan

In 1993, after a jury trial, Hamedah Ali Hasan was found guilty of the following Counts in the Superseding Indictment: I (conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine), IV-VIII (distribution of and/or possession with intent to distribute cocaine), IX (interstate travel in aid of racketeering), and X (use of a communication facility in furtherance of a conspiracy). She committed the offenses between 1988 and 1991.

She had no criminal history and she had no misconduct while on pretrial release in 1992 and 1993. She had two children and was pregnant with a third at the time I sentenced her. Hasan, who is black, was fleeing an abusive relationship when she moved from Oregon to Omaha to operate a drug business with two relatives. She was in her early twenties.

Hasan was held responsible for 5.9 kilograms of cocaine base, placing her at base offense level 40. She received a three-level upward departure for her role as a manager in the conspiracy.  On October 20, 1993, I sentenced Hasan to the following concurrent terms of imprisonment: Counts I and VII — life; Counts IV and V — 480 months; Counts VI and VIII — 240 months; Count IX — 60 months; and Count X — 48 months.  I wrote a very long opinion explaining why I felt bound to impose the life sentence even though I thought it was far too harsh.

On November 1, 1994, Amendment 505 to the Sentencing Guidelines eliminated base offense levels 42 and 40 from the drug quantity table in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1. The amendment was made retroactive. In 1998, Hasan filed a motion to reduce her sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2)[1] in light of retroactive Amendment 505. Hasan also asked the Court to consider her post-sentencing rehabilitative conduct during her imprisonment as grounds for a downward departure under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.0. In resentencing Hasan in 1999, under § 3582(c)(2), I applied Amendment 505 and reached a new total offense level of 41. I also departed 8 levels downward to offense level 33 based on her post-sentencing in-prison rehabilitative conduct under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.0.

I, therefore, granted Hasan’s motion to reduce her sentence and sentenced her to the following concurrent terms of imprisonment: Counts I, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII — 144 months; Count IX — 60 months; and Count X — 48 months. The Eighth Circuit initially affirmed the sentence; however, the panel’s opinion was vacated and the case was heard en banc. United States v. Hasan, 205 F.3d 1072, 1075-76 (8th Cir. Feb. 29, 2000), vacated, 213 F.3d 1049 (8th Cir. 2000). The original panel  majority concluded the opinion stressing Hasan’s extraordinary rehabilitation in prison, and stated, “Although the Government does not argue Hasan’s rehabilitative efforts are not extraordinary, we agree with the district court that they are. We thus affirm the district court’s resentencing order.”

There was never any doubt that Hasan had been rehabilitated.  The evidence presented at my hearing and otherwise proved her rehabilitation beyond question. It is accurately itemized in detail in her counsel’s 2010 letter supporting the second application for commutation which may be found here on pages 8 through 11. So far as I know, no government official has ever disputed any of this evidence.

The en banc Eighth Circuit Court concluded that the I abused my discretion in granting a downward departure under § 5K 2.0 in a § 3582(c)(2) resentencing. United States v. Hasan, 245 F.3d 682, 684-85 (8th Cir. 2001). The Eighth Circuit explained that a district court under the relevant circumstances must make two determinations: (1) the sentence that it would have imposed had the new sentencing range been the applicable range at the time of the original sentencing; and (2) whether to give the defendant the benefit of that reduced sentence. Id. At step (2) the district court may consider any applicable factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) only insofar as it considers where within the new guideline range to sentence the defendant; § 3553(a) may not serve as a mechanism for a departure below the guideline range. Id. at 685. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit concluded that I abused my discretion in departing below the new guideline range under § 3553(a) because a downward departure was not granted at the original sentencing. Id. at 686 (discussing U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10). Since post-sentencing conduct could not have been a factor at the original sentencing, the Eighth Circuit stated that the below-the-guideline sentence could not stand. Id. at 686-90. The court reversed my grant of the downward departure motion and remanded the case for imposition of a 324-month sentence. Four judges dissented, stating that the earlier panel decision explained their reasoning. Id. at 690-91. Hasan’s petition for certiorari was denied. Hasan v. United States, 534 U.S. 905 (2001).

On remand in 2002, and pursuant to the mandate of the Circuit, I resentenced Hasan to the following concurrent terms of imprisonment: Counts I, IV, V and VII — 324 months; Counts VI and VIII — 240 months; Count IX — 60 months; and Count X — 48 months.

Several years later, Hasan filed motion, and a supporting brief, relying on the then recent retroactive amendments to the existing crack cocaine sentencing guidelines set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1 as well as U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10. The government filed no brief in opposition. I recused himself from that case.  On July 8, 2008, I wrote that:

ORDER as to defendant Hamedah A. Hasan Hamedah Hasan has filed a motion to reduce her sentence due to the amendment of the crack cocaine Guidelines which have now been made retroactive. I am no longer impartial when it comes to Hamedah Hasan. I asked the President to commute her sentence* and I appeared in a film** about her, urging that she be given relief. More recently, I was advised by the Justice Department that the commutation request was denied by the President, and I expressed my disgust about that decision to her lawyer.*** Therefore, IT IS ORDERED that I recuse myself from Hamedah Hasan’s case . . .

The case was reassigned to Judge Smith Camp.  Although initially agreeing that Ms. Hasan’s sentence ought to be reduced, Judge Smith Camp ultimately denied the motion on June 24, 2009 concluding that the law was against Hasan because of the highly intricate way the statutes defined “original sentence” for purpose of determining whether the amendments applied. Judge Smith Camp’s decision was correct in all particulars, although her heart was certainly not in it.

The second application for clemency followed on or about February 11, 2010 and a national campaign was begun to free Hasan. See, e.g., here (scroll down). So far as I know, that clemency application was never ruled upon.

On November 7, 2011, and applying the 2011 amendments to the “crack” Guidelines, and based upon the government’s stipulation, Judge Smith Camp reduced Hasan’s sentence of 324 months (my 2002 sentence compelled by the en banc opinion of the Court of Appeals) to 262 months. With credit for good time, Hasan was released a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2012. See here for a poignant account of that release. She had served between 18 and 19 years in federal prison having convinced everyone with knowledge that she had been fully rehabilitated long before. The child that Hasan gave birth to in prison was nearly an adult. The clemency provisions of the Constitution and our laws on clemency had failed Hasan and the rest of us. Her treatment was merciless rather than merciful.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder

It is worth remembering that clemency is entrusted to the President under the Constitution. Article I, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution. (The President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”) Clemency is not some incidental matter found in some long forgotten phrase in some dusty statute.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have known for a long time that the clemency process was a sham.  For example, in 2010, Margaret Love, former U.S. Pardon Attorney (1990-1997), warned President Obama and Attorney General Holder that “To date, President Obama has taken no steps to reform and reinvigorate a pardon process that has, in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words, been ‘drained of its moral force.'” Margaret Colgate Love, THE TWILIGHT OF THE PARDON POWER, 100 Northwestern University, School of Law, Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 1169 (2010). Ms. Love asked: “Why has the president’s pardon power essentially ceased to function?”**** She provided objective and detailed answers to that question. Until this week, President Obama and Attorney General Holder ignored the red flags and did nothing.

Why do they act now?  I have my own cynical speculations, but they are only speculations. What I do know is this:  President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve no credit for doing the right thing at this late date. The federal criminal justice system has been sullied and harmed by their sloth-like approach to this pressing national problem of Constitutional dimensions. They deserve no praise. On the contrary, they deserve the same merciless treatment that Hasan received. It is time for them to shut up, stop crowing, and get on with fixing the problem once and for all.

RGK

*In 2003, I advised the Pardon Attorney that I vigorously supported the clemency application of Hasan. However, that application was denied by the Bush administration.

**I appeared in Reverend Melissa Mummert’s 2008 award winning documentary “Perversion of Justice” where I decried the failure to release Hasan. As the film documents, the title “Perversion of Justice” are my words. The link provides a short version of the documentary.

***That lawyer was Korey Reiman, whose young head is as bald as my old one. Korey began to help Ms. Hasan as a law student and continued to assist her throughout the nearly 20 years that followed. Korey makes me proud to be lawyer.

****For clemency statistics for each President, see here.

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