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US Supreme Court's war on prosecutors meets 'Bridgegate'

15:20  13 january  2020
15:20  13 january  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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The United States Supreme Court , in a decision that surprised legal experts, last week agreed to hear an appeal of the defendants’ corruption convictions in a move that could significantly weaken the ability of prosecutors to go after what they determine to be political malfeasance. The court ’ s decision to

Now, the U. S . Supreme Court will decide if prosecutors misapplied the law at the outset. The court ' s decision, expected this spring, could have a far-reaching impact on how public corruption investigations are handled, similar to rulings in recent years involving former Enron CEO Jeffrey

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court was deep into oral argument back in 2014 about a Florida fisherman's federal conviction for destroying evidence – in his case, 72 undersized grouper.

Chris Christie wearing a suit and tie: Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, here in September 2019, was at the center of a 2013 scandal that shut down George Washington Bridge entrance lanes from Fort Lee, N.J.© Robert Deutsch, USAT Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, here in September 2019, was at the center of a 2013 scandal that shut down George Washington Bridge entrance lanes from Fort Lee, N.J.

"What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?" Associate Justice Antonin Scalia railed.

"You make him sound like a mob boss or something," Chief Justice John Roberts chastised the Justice Department's lawyer.

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Now, the U. S . Supreme Court will decide if prosecutors misapplied the law at the outset. The court ’ s decision, expected this spring, could have a far-reaching impact on how public corruption investigations are handled, similar to rulings in recent years involving former Enron CEO Jeffrey

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The case – which went well for the fisherman, if not the fish – was one of many recent examples in which the high court has admonished prosecutors for stretching laws to win convictions. Others rescued by the justices ranged from a jilted wife charged with assault under an international chemical weapons treaty to a legal immigrant deported for hiding four prescription tablets in a sock.

On Tuesday, the high court will shed some light on whether its forgiveness extends to shutting down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge – the busiest bridge in the world – for political retribution.

The case pits two mid-level public officials with ties to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie against federal prosecutors who charged them with fraud and won 18-month prison sentences for a political prank that ran amok.

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Upset by a Democratic mayor's refusal to endorse Republican Christie's re-election in 2013, the two associates created gridlock for several days in Fort Lee, N.J. As it turned out, they also helped turn a popular governor with presidential ambitions into a joke on late-night television, helping to tank his political future.

The scandal, now going on seven years, became known as Bridgegate. The Supreme Court's willingness to hear it following two lower court convictions is a positive sign for Christie aides Bridget Kelly and William Baroni, though it's too soon to tell if they'll get off the hook like the Florida fish captain.

What's clearer is the court's impatience with federal and state prosecutors, even in cases of political corruption.

Four years ago, the court vacated the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who had been sentenced to two years in prison for accepting luxury gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for "official acts." The justices ruled unanimously that those acts were commonplace actions taken on behalf of constituents.

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a case involving two former state officials convicted in New Jersey' s " Bridgegate " scandal. Prosecutors alleged that Kelly and Baroni' s motive in realigning the lanes was to punish Fort Lee' s Democratic mayor for not endorsing their boss

The U. S . Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal concerning the criminal convictions of two former associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the so-called Bridgegate scandal that hindered his 2016 presidential candidacy.

The ruling made it harder for prosecutors to use federal fraud statutes against public officials by characterizing what the justices called common favors as crimes. That could work against the Trump administration in the New Jersey case.

“A good number of the recent cases are examples of where prosecutors stretched the law," says Ellen Podgor, a white-collar crime research professor at Stetson University College of Law.

Siding with defendants

The Supreme Court began pushing back against public corruption prosecutions in 1987, reversing the conviction of Kentucky officials who had skimmed money paid by the state to insurance companies. The court reasoned that fraud statutes do not guarantee officials will "perform their duties honestly." A generation later, it added that "honest services" fraud must include bribery or kickbacks.

More recently, the justices have sided frequently with small-time criminal defendants swept up by large-scale prosecutions:

In 2014, the court ruled unanimously that the federal government had no business using an international chemical weapons treaty to prosecute a jilted wife who committed a "two-bit local assault" against her husband's lover.

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In 2015, it chastised federal prosecutors for deporting a Tunisian man on drug paraphernalia charges based on four Adderall tablets hidden in a sock.

In 2017, the justices ruled unanimously that a Serbian immigrant's lie about her husband's military record was not reason to strip away her citizenship.

Last year, the court again ruled unanimously that states, along with the federal government, cannot impose excessive fines as criminal penalties – such as the seizure of a small-time drug dealer's $42,000 Land Rover.

"The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority," Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

'Honest government'

Perhaps sensing a sympathetic audience, lawyers for Kelly have raised another recent Supreme Court decision: last year's ruling against the Trump administration's effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

Noting that Chief Justice John Roberts said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' reason for adding the question "seems to have been contrived," Kelly's lawyers said Ross could have been imprisoned for fraud under the reasoning used to convict their client.

"That astoundingly expansive theory of criminal fraud cannot be correct," they wrote. "It would undo, in one fell swoop, three decades of this court’s precedents rejecting attempts to enforce 'honest government' through vague federal criminal statutes."

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But there's another side to the Bridgegate saga. The Justice Department says Kelly and Baroni didn't just conceal political motives. Rather, it says they blatently made up a non-existent traffic study and used Port Authority of New York and New Jersey resources to manufacture what Kelly warned would be "some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Unlike some of the small fish the Supreme Court saved from overzealous prosecutors, such as Florida fish captain John Yates, public officials "are in positions of power," says Jennifer Ahearn, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an anti-corruption group.

"This is really how our system works," Ahearn says. "We give discretion to prosecutors in the federal criminal justice system writ large. You don’t have courts stepping in and saying, 'This person isn’t worthy of being prosecuted.'"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court's war on prosecutors meets 'Bridgegate'

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