Georgia Criminal Appellate Law Blog

Offering Insight and Commentary on Appellate Law and Criminal Trial Practice

Giving the Client a Voice in the Process

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

IMG_0017Yesterday, I took a drive out to the hinterlands to visit a habeas corpus client. I met up with a law school intern for the visit. During the time we spend together, the client what to know what he could do to assist in his case.

Over the course of my career, my thinking has evolved on the subject of clients and their desire to assist in their case. There’s a meme circulating among colleagues that says “don’t confuse your Google search for my law degree.” 10 years ago, I would have worn the t-shirt.

Then I try to imagine what it would be like to have no control over anything in my life and no freedom. I would want some input in my case. I spoke to a colleague who is an appellate lawyer in an indigent defense agency. She gives the clients a copy of their transcript upon request and encourages input. She has never experienced a downside with the practice. Never. Of course, at the end of the day, the lawyer chooses the issues. And knowing which issues to include is a big part of the art and science of law. But it doesn’t help the relationship to discourage the client from having a voice. I found an excellent law review article on the topic of how to allocate the decision making between the attorney and the client. The article suggests that a collaborative model focused on the client works best. In this model, their lawyer works to inform the client about options and empowers the client’s ability to choose as much as possible, having had the benefit of the lawyer’s experience and wise counsel.

So, here is what I told my client. I said to get in the law library every chance he could find. And I told him that if he finds anything that he thinks might be helpful to write me. He was happy with this advice. I think it made him feel like he had a voice in his fate. And who knows, sometimes clients come up with good ideas if we give them a chance.

Should Defendant Be Required to Prove Actual Innocence After Reversing a Conviction?

Posted in News

The oral argument transcript is now available on Nelson v. Colorado. the audio should be available later this week. This case challenges the constitutionality of Colorado’s Exoneration Act on procedural due process grounds. The two petitioners in the case were each convicted of crimes. While incarcerated, the State of Colorado took fine money from their prison accounts. One was retried and acquitted. Another will not be tried again. After their convictions were reversed, each filed motions on the criminal case demanding that their money be returned to them.

The State of Colorado said that the money could not be returned because the defendant failed to file a civil claim for the return of money under the Exoneration Act. Under that act, the defendants would have been required to file suit and prove actual innocence in order to have their fine money refunded to them. For each, the amount of money paid was so small that it would have been eaten up by attorney’s fees.

Petitioners argued that the Act was a violation of procedural due process because the hurdles to a refund were ridiculously onerous. The State of Colorado argues that the Act comports with Due Process because there is a judicial process for the refund of money.

One should never read too much in to oral argument, but it appears that the petitioners fared well. Adam Liptak has more here. Oyez has more here. And the SCOTUS Blog’s coverage is here. 

First Mondays is My Favorite New Podcast

Posted in News

I’ve been hearing about First Mondays for quite some time. First Mondays is a podcast covering the United States Supreme Court. They record each week that the Court is in session. The co-hosts are both former SCOTUS clerks. I’ve only listened to one episode, the one for this week. But I’ve subscribed will become a regular listener.

As an appellate lawyer, I like the way the hosts anaylze briefs on cases to be argued and give their opinion about what made the question presented good. They go “inside baseball” enough to help me improve as a practitioner.  I also like the coverage. It can be difficult to keep up with the docket, and this podcast will help me stay current without getting bogged down.

But this is also a podcast that I’d recommend for a non-lawyer who is interested in the Court and cases on the docket. The podcast is accessible for a non-lawyer. In today’s episodes, for instance, the hosts quizzed each other on  questions presented from famous cases. The trick was that they used words from among the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

I will be taking this podcast with me on future commutes and runs.

Best Argument For And Against Recording in the Courtroom

Posted in News, Opinions and Analysis

Georgia superior court judges have pursued some polarizing changes to the way they are regulated. Now, they want to impose strict restrictions on the public’ ability to record what happens in open court. On January 17, 2017, they will begin considering a new superior court rule that will give Georgia judges unprecedented control over their courtrooms. I have never been a superior court judge and don’t feel qualified to know the ins and outs. Judges have done a great job of getting their way with the legislature, and they have put in a sustained effort to clamp down on attempts to record what they do in the courtroom. So, it may not matter what critics or the public think.

Judges say that their position is credible because they like to have power over the people who come before them, whether parties, their lawyers, jurors, reporters, or spectators who want to come in and watch what happens. And judges have the ear of powerful legislatures, as a recent episode of This American Life demonstrates. Georgia jurists did not like the idea of an ethics committee telling them how to run their courtroom. So, they convinced some friends in the legislature to put the ethics committee under the legislature’s control.

Now, they are pushing new revisions to rule 22. This rule would give judges the power to hold in contempt a spectator in a courtroom who turns on a recording device (for instance, just about any smartphone). Even if the recording process is not disruptive, a spectator who records a judge, if the rule is enacted, could be summarily jailed:

(3) Spectators: All spectators while in a courtroom must turn the power off to any recording device while present in a courtroom. No use of any recording device is permitted unless authorized by the Court.

There are all sorts of arcane rules for spectators or attorneys to ask to use recording devices in the courtroom. And judges have great discretion to say “no,” upon such vague ideas that the act of recording would be “undignified.”

Critics claim that the rule is essentially a power grab. They are suspicious that judges are going to such lengths to shut down efforts to record what happens in their courtrooms. They reason that if judge have nothing to hide, why would they care if proceedings are recorded? These critics believe that there are some fairly ridiculous problems within the rule. For instance, spectators absolutely must power off recording devices in the courtroom. And they can only record upon proper request if they somehow learn how to make a proper request.

Critics think that this new rule is a thinly veiled attempt to prevent judges from getting caught doing things they should not do, such as the Cobb County Judge who was caught engaging in conversation with prosecutors about criminal cases while the defendants’ lawyers were not present. In fact, the superior court is harshest on attempts to record in a courtroom while court is not in session — exactly the setting for the Cobb County judge’s misdeed.

The rule is friendlier to parties or attorneys who want to record. But critics of the proposed rule would point out that parties and attorneys are least likely to rock the boat by asking to do so. They want to stay in the judge’s good graces because the judge will either decide the case, will decide what evidence the jury gets to hear, or will decide how long somebody goes off to prison. A spectator, on the other hand, has no dog in the fight. A spectator is not out to impress the judge and could care less if the judge is angry at her. And, wouldn’t you know it, spectators would be most restricted from recording if the rules passes.

Judges just think that that the critics of the rule are trying to interfere with their courtrooms. They’re the judge, so we should trust them with maximum control.

Personally, because I have to practice in front of these judges, I endorse the proposed rule change. But I note that many people are appalled by it. And many critics find it ironic that judges attacked the JQC because they claim  it sanctioned judges in a Star Chamber environment. But for the people who appear in front of those judges, the Star Chamber is just fine, thank you very much.

A Death Sentence for Want of a Lawyer

Posted in News, State Habeas Corpus

In today’s New York Times, former Chief Justice Norman Fletcher has written an editorial denouncing the upcoming execution of the Georgia inmate sentenced to death in 1990. Chief Justice Fletcher is particularly concerned about the fact that the inmate lost out on the possible federal review of this case. The inmate, while representing himself, missed the deadline for federal habeas corpus by eight days. Georgia is one of the states that fails to recognize the right to counsel after the direct appeal, even on sentences of death.

For Chief Justice Fletcher, the tragedy is even worse because there were potential issues of merit in the habeas corpus.

Justice Fletcher sheds light on not only a troubling issue in death penalty cases in Georgia. He also discusses the fact that there is no right to counsel at the habeas corpus stage in spite of the fact that habeas corpus is a complex process that is confusing even to attorneys. In Georgia, the defendant must raise ineffective assistance of counsel at the motion for new trial phase if new counsel is appointed to the case or if the defendant is pro se on his direct appeal. In the event that the same lawyer who handles the appeal also handled the trial, then ineffective assistance of counsel is relegated to the habeas corpus stage, where the inmate does not have the right to counsel.

Georgia should have a regime in place and allows a person under the sentence of death to have the right to counsel at every stage of the proceedings. And there should be a process where a court could appoint counsel on potentially meritorious habeas corpus cases.. The judge could act as a clearinghouse for those cases where an appointed attorney could be of assistance (similar to what exists in the federal system). Right now, where inmates cannot afford counsel, habeas corpus petitioners either must go it alone or rely upon a volunteer lawyer. When no volunteer lawyer is available, then a person with potentially meritorious issues could be literally killed for want of a lawyer.

As the legislature considers criminal justice reform, the right to counsel in at least some habeas cases is worth a look.

Cell Phones, The Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment

Posted in Opinions and Analysis

Yesterday, I spoke at a continuing legal education conference for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The topic was searches of cell phones incident to arrest.  I also discussed the  Application of the fifth amendment protection against self-incrimination when a suspect is compelled to provide a passcode to unlock a cell phone or to decrypt hard drive data.

Please contact me if you have questions or comments. Or you may comment here.

 

The Myth of Expertise

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

We just ended a bad week for experts. I was in Athens, Georgia, Saturday for a football game. Auburn was a 10.5 point favorite to win. It turns out that they did not even score 10 points, losing 13-7. Earlier last week, the presidential candidate whom most experts predicted to have somewhere between a 66% to 75% chance to win the election, lost the election. Experts are having a rough go.

Yet, we lawyers work with experts all of the time. In fact, we are experts. The State calls experts for everything from child interviewing to cause of death. And we call our own experts who testify to different conclusions. Maybe those types of experts are different. After all, while pollsters and oddsmakers claim to be experts on what while happen in the future, the sorts of experts we call a trial tells us their opinion of why or how something happened in the past.

Lawyers, however, are often called upon to do what the pollsters and the bookies do. We are called upon to advise a client about the odds that something will happen in the future based upon a decision. We sit with clients and advise them of the potential outcome of a trial that would take place if they turn down a plea bargain. Or we tell clients that we believe that they should turn down a plea bargain because their chances at trial seem better than the offer that has been extended. We advise on the efficacy of a potential motion versus the problems that might arise by pressing it. We are the sort of expert who predicts the future, interestingly enough, based upon how powerfully we believe we can use our expertise to explained what happened with a set of facts based in the past. That is almost a definition of what plea bargaining is.

Plea bargaining is essentially what criminal defense lawyer do. The United States Supreme Court recognizes it. In Missouri v. Frye, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority said, “In to-day’s criminal justice system, therefore, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.” And trials are quite rare compared to the total of criminal cases formally accused or indicted.

How, then, do lawyers properly act as experts in this arena? We have to recognize that we are not fortune tellers. But our role is to make sure that we understand the law and facts in each case. We must engage in plea bargaining. And when we sit with a client, we have an obligation to make sure that they have what they need to make an informed decision. And when the client is fully informed, we cannot claim to predict the future. And it is not our job to make the ultimate decision of whether to take a plea or go for trial or whether to testify or not testify. And just as we cannot abdicate our role to work for the best possible offer, to communicate it, and to inform the client’s decision, we should not allow the client to abdicate the choosing to us. This process is not always clean, and the lines often blur.

But this week has taught me, if nothing else, that there is no science to predict the future. No expertise tells us how it will unfold. But the real work is in assessing the reality of the present choice based upon what we think can be proved about past events. We can only research, describe, and be present with clients. The big decisions are theirs.

 

Final Thoughts on JQC Amendment 3

Posted in News

I am not surprised that Amendment 3 passed. It was a bad idea with an unsavory political history. I did not personally know any lawyers who were in love with it. And my non-lawyer friends who asked me about it seemed persuaded that it was a bad idea. But, alas, I don’t know millions of people. I put it out there on Facebook. But Facebook is a solipsistic medium. I think my musings on Amendment 3 got a lot of amens but changed few minds.

The agency that governs judicial behavior ought to be independent from the legislature. It should be concerned with the neutral and dispassionate application of the judicial canons to judicial action. The JQC had its problems. It operated in extreme secrecy and its tactics were occasionally bullying. It was not a perfect agency. But there were less  intrusive fixes out there than then one chosen.

So, what is the future of judicial ethics? There is work to be done in the legislature to make sure that the mechanism is as effective as possible. I’ve said before that the State Bar can regulate the behavior of its members, whether they be engaged in the practice of law or the practice of judging. But the Bar appears to be politically compromised on all of this.

Ultimately judges are elected officials. And if they act in a way that is unbecoming of the bench, it is up to the people to regulate their behavior. And if the legislature, with its new powers, does a bad job with the JQC, the people choose them, also. What I say here feels like a cop out and perhaps a bit Pollyanna. From my experience, many educated non-lawyers have little idea what judges do or how it all works. I cannot count the people I have known socially who have asked the classic cocktail party questions about my job — “how do you do this for a living?” “What would you do if someone you were representing were actually guilty?” You know the other questions. But I have also had the experience of those same people coming to be clients or parents of clients of mine. And when they are in the system, going to calendar calls, preliminary hearings, motions, and trials, they are appalled at the experience. I do not know how to package up that life experience and communicate it to folks who may never know a courtroom firsthand. So, incumbent judges, even bad ones, are re-elected. And a Constitutional Amendment like 3 passes because it is written in a way that a voter in the ballot box thinks that it is a good idea.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s most famous line is that “in a democracy the people get the government they deserve.” Voters often get things right, as do juries and judges. But we are only as good as the information that we have. And when it comes to courts, the most informed appear to be the ones who are initiated either by being lawyers, serving on juries, or being actually indicted. How to inform others? I really don’t know.

Re-Examining Dick Donovan’s Rant

Posted in News

Over at Fault Lines, Andrew Fleischman has an article on Paulding DA Dick Donovan’s Facebook post. Jim Galloway at the Atlanta Journal noticed it, too. The post was a “eulogy for white Judeo-Christian men.” It was really quite jarring to read, particularly by a person who has extraordinary power to prosecute people and even seek the death penalty in certain cases. A day ago, I would have just thought it the demise of his career at best or mere anachronistic rant speak at worst. Then the election results came in, and I see that he’s very much mainstream. Particularly here in Georgia. And his eulogy may have been a bit premature. Turns out that the “white guys” and all he envision in conjuring such an identity, are alive and well.

I, it turns out, am the outlier.

Carry on, Mr. Donovan. Carry on.

I Quit Social Media

Posted in Writing

When you go on a family vacation, the people you live with have the opportunity to learn more about you and how you are feeling. And so it was in Oregon a few weeks ago, that my wife noticed my anxiety level. And when she noticed it, I began to notice it, also. And after I noticed, I began looking for the source. I’m not sure that I’ve found it. But I think I have a few leads.

For one thing, I have been devouring too much election coverage — way too much of it. So, I decided to do the one thing about the election that I could actually control. I voted. With that done, the media’s coverage was fairly irrelevant to me. With my vote already cast, no infomation could possibly influence it. So, I went the next step. I unsubscribed from the New York Times and deleted the app from my devices. When I woke up the next morning, I reached for the iPad to click the app. It was no longer there. Then I noticed that there was more of it on Facebook. So, away went went the app on my phone and iPad. Then there was Twitter. Away it went.

I happened upon a TED Talk by Cal Newport. He encourages his listeners to quit social media. I had his book on my shelf and re-read the chapter on quitting social media. Then I took stock.

I tried to weigh the benefits of it. I could not think of a single case I have ever brought in by being on Facebook or Twitter. I also could not think of a single case I had won because of it. Then I tried to imagine the time I have devoted to them over the years. So, then I took a radical step. I deactivated Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Those services have beeen gone now for two days. Before that, I had not logged in for about a week. If anyone has noticed my absence, they haven’t told me. The people who have needed to talk to me, have seemed to find me.

When I am writing a brief and I hit a rough spot, I find myself reaching for the phone for that quick hit of dopamine. And I realize it is not there. And I almost immediately let out a relaxing breath.

Something else I have done. I have installed an extension on Chrome called Inbox Pause. This nifty service allows me to pause incoming mail everywhere until I log back in and unpause it. I pull in emails every day or two and process it all at once. When the email is paused, it is not available on my phone. I put more thought into emails when I return them. Or I pick up the phone and respond. When I am tempted to seek answer to a question by email, I know that there will be a delay. So, I am either okay with it or I call the person. I find myself having more meaningful interactions. If someone has noticed my new email habit, they haven’t said anything. I have found that email is sometimes an exercise in avoidance. It can be a place to avoid a topic that should be tackled at a higher bandwidth.

Here is something else I have discovered. I find emails that seem urgent. Then as I scan my inbox or call the person back, they say, “never mind. It resolved itself.” Or “never mind. I found the answer.”

Yesterday and today, I sat to write a brief. I found myself in a state of enjoyment. When I’ve reached from email, Facebook, or Twitter, they have not been there. “Oh, yeah,” I have thought to myself before getting back to work.

I need to hang out with my family more. They are very good at noticing things.

 

p.s.

I don’t consider the writing of this blog to be social media. It’s long form and offers the opportunity to reflect.