: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Civil Suit Challenging Alleged Abuses in Asset Forfeiture

Nachodoches attorney David Guillory is challenging the enforcement of Texas asset seizure laws in Tenaha and Shelby County in east Texas, alleging that his clients were stopped and coerced into waiving property rights in exchange for a promise to be released and not be criminally charged.

Linda Dorman, an Akron, Ohio, great-grandmother had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van. She’s still hoping for the return of what she calls “her life savings.”

Many small town police forces have come to depend on the civil asset forfeiture laws for operational expenses. The incentive to cross the line from preventing criminals from enjoying ill-gotten gains to an easy way to earn money for the department is an all too apparent conflict of interest.

Guillory’s sleuthing in the district clerk’s office raised his suspicions. ” We found out what the names of those people were and then we looked in the criminal docket there in Shelby County for the past 24 months to see if any of those people were ever charged with a crime or prosecuted of a crime. The answer is we didn’t find anyone. That’s what really caught our eye. That’s what made it suspicious and that’s what made it seem like a situation where it’s just a money shakedown operation beside the road with no intent of enforcing crime or criminal laws or anything like that. “

Gary Haugen and International Justice Mission Profiled in the New Yorker

International Justice Ministries is the kind of organization I tend to be skeptical of. When it comes to the law, good intentions are often worse than useless; few things have such lasting destructive potential as well-meaning but incompetent lawyering. However, my admittedly arms length observation of IJM has left me, at least initially, impressed. Samantha Power, known for her own work on issues of genocide and human rights, has a profile in the New Yorker: The Enforcer: A Christian lawyer’s global crusade.

Haugen, who was educated at Harvard and at the University of Chicago Law School, is a forty-five-year-old evangelical Christian who believes that Christians have generally ignored the Biblical injunction to “seek justice, protect the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In 1997, he created the International Justice Mission to offer legal services to the poor in developing countries. Haugen believes that the biggest problem on earth is not too little democracy, or too much poverty, or too few anti-retroviral AIDS medicines, but, rather, an absence of proper law enforcement.

Haugen rather astutely sees the connections between economic performance and the legal system of a given locale. I think many doing work in third world countries see a robust American-style justice system (not to overlook our own shortcomings) as something of a luxury good, achievable at a certain per capita income, but hardly feasible in a place where the necessities we take for granted are missing. Haugen sees it as an essential economic input – “Without investing in the rule of law for the poor, none of the other investments we make will be sustainable.”

In 2007, Transparency International published a report underscoring the extent of the problem. Seventy-nine per cent of people surveyed in Cameroon, and seventy-two per cent of Cambodians, reported paying a bribe to obtain basic services in the previous year. The study also confirmed Haugen’s view that the poor are more likely to pay bribes than the wealthy, often to avoid harassment. According to a report published by Afrobarometer, a public-opinion research group, only fifty-three per cent of people surveyed in subSaharan Africa expressed confidence that senior government officials would be brought to justice if they committed a serious crime. In Kenya, sixty-four per cent deemed most or all of the police corrupt. A World Bank study of twenty-three countries found that the poor saw police “not as a source of help and security, but rather of harm, risk, and impoverishment.”

My favorite line appears near the end.

During a break in the proceedings, Rogo asked Haugen if he would like to speak with Mutungi. Haugen went up to the bench where the detainees were squeezed together. He spoke to Mutungi for a moment; then the men clasped hands, knelt, and prayed for several minutes. When Haugen returned to his seat, he told me, “We prayed to God for Duncan’s freedom. Prayers help. Prayers and a lawyer help more.” A week later, after fifteen months in jail, Mutungi was acquitted and set free.

Haugen isn’t without his critics. The issues surrounding prostitution which Powers dwells on at length are deservedly controversial.

Samantha Power, The Enforcer: A Christian lawyer’s global crusade, New Yorker, January 19, 2009.

Felony Vote Selling

With the attention vote swapping got in the last Presidential election, this probably seemed like the next logical step or a brilliant stroke of insight -

A Minnesota college student looking to profit off his political indifference has been charged with a felony for trying to sell his vote on the auction Web site eBay. The student, Max P. Sanders, 19, of Edina, was charged Thursday with one count of bribery, treating and soliciting, a felony under an 1893 Minnesota law that criminalizes the sale and purchase of votes.

In May Mr. Sanders set a minimum bid of $10 for his vote this November and offered to provide photographic documentation inside the booth.

Not so brilliant. Really worth pursuing criminal charges over though? The story provides some insight into how D.A.s mind operate.

The state law was actively enforced during Prohibition, when “people would go into bars and dig out drunks and give them a $20 and try to buy their vote,” said Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, who said he did not know of any other modern abuses.

“We’re not humorless in the county attorney’s office and we’re not in the horse-and-buggy age,” Mr. Freeman said, “but we decided it’s something we just couldn’t blow off. Sometimes in this business we need to make statements.”

Attending a Fourth of July parade, where he observed a veteran limping along the streets, reinforced his decision, said Mr. Freeman, who is a Vietnam veteran. “A lot of us served in the military trying to protect the right to vote,” he said. “This is serious stuff.”

The charge carries up to five years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Mr. Freeman said an “appropriate” penalty was more likely to entail community service, not jail time.

I’m not one to minimize the importance of ensuring the validity of our electoral system. Luckily for Sanders Freeman seems to have some sense of proportional punishment. Maybe he can raise some funds for a “get out the don’t-sell-your-vote” campaign by auctioning off Sanders’ soon to be acquired community service time.

New York Times: Offer of a Vote for Sale Draws Unwanted Attention

Is Slate Magazine America’s Leading Law Review?

David Schleicher says yes and I tend to agree with him. Here’s his case –

I think it’s safe to say that [Slate] has become America’s leading law review. In the past year, Slate has run stories by Bruce Ackerman, Ahkil Amar, Frank Bowman, Bill Eskridge, David Fontana, Richard Thompson Ford, Bennett Gershman, Jack Goldsmith, Rick Hasen Orin Kerr, Neal Katyal, Marty Lederman, Eric Posner, Jamin Raskin, Jim Ryan and Kenji Yoshino (and I’m sure I missed a few too). And that doesn’t count the extensive writing by Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick on the Supreme Court and other legal issues, or the Convictions blog, where a large number of law professors (including Jack Balkin, David Baron and Doug Kmiec among many others). In total, Slate has published more articles by legal academics than any law review, and because of the blog, probably more total words (I haven’t counted or anything – I’m just eyeballing) by law professors in the past year than any other publication.

Slate is a daily must-read for me. Convictions for one and my personal favorite, the Supreme Court Breakfast Table. Check it out if you haven’t already.

The comments supply some compelling answers for why this is so, mainly founding editor Michael Kinsley (Harvard Law) and publisher Cliff Sloan (Harvard Law, Stevens clerk).

George Carlin, Rest in #$%*ing Peace

George Carlin died today. A sign of a well-earned obituary, his life is still more interesting for its events than for its passing. From the New York Times

In 1970, Mr. Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Mr. Carlin reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that, according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to both his new image and his material.

Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled “Shoot,” in which Mr. Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which appeared on his third album “Class Clown,” also released in 1972. “There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is all right on television,” Mr. Carlin noted in his introduction to the then controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”

The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early ‘70s. The station was censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ‘offensive material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Mr. Carlin refused to drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.

The Supreme Court case was FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)

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