Sarcasm and Public Employment Don’t Mix, Part Deux

GavelBack in my previous blogging life, I wrote about a case by the 11th Circuit, Mitchell v. Hillsborough County, No. 05-12207 (11th Cir., Oct. 31, 2006), which involved a county employee who made satirical remarks about one of the country commissioners, and got fired for it.  In “Swift Would Be Ashamed” from 2006, I wrote about the facts of that case:

Plaintiff Gary Mitchell had a job filming the meetings of his local Board of Commissioners and he also volunteered at the local public access television station. Due to a brouhaha over indecent programming, the Board of Commissioners had proposed to cut public access funding. Commissioner Rhonda Storms was leading the morality crusade, so Mitchell decided to have some fun at her expense. During the open comment period of a supervisors’ meeting, Mitchell took to the podium wearing a beret with a thunderbolt on top and announced that he was a member of a fictitious political support group called the Thunderheads. He then gave a speech praising Storms and concluded with a question: given her preoccupation with women’s body parts, did she prefer the nickname “Vagi” or “Gina”?

I perhaps can understand the efficiency argument in this case (though it is certainly not a slam dunk), but I don’t agree at all that this is not speech on a matter of public concern.  As Robert [Loblaw] points out, that would be like saying Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal was really about cannibalism.

The 11th Circuit found that Mitchell’s speech was not a matter of public concern, and even if it was, the efficiency concerns of the employer in ensuring co-worker harmony outweighed any First Amendment rights Mitchell would have had.

Well, the humor of the federal courts has not improved in three years.  Not even in my hometown. 

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: “A Total Breakdown of Justice”


In January 2003, Milwaukee police officers found two guns in the home of the estranged wife of Rashid Salahuddin.  Salahuddin himself was arrested shortly afterwards.  Now, more than six years later, after many rounds of legal proceedings in state and federal court, Salahuddin still awaits final resolution of criminal charges stemming from the discovery of the guns.   

In October 2008, Judge J.P. Stadtmueller of the Eastern District of Wisconsin summoned the United States Attorney and the Federal Defender to his office for an off-the record conversation about the case, which he characterized as “a total breakdown of justice.”  Following this conversation, the government asked Stadtmueller to recuse himself from the case.  When Stadtmueller refused, the government initiated proceedings in the Seventh Circuit to compel the district judge’s removal. 

The Seventh Circuit has now agreed with the government that Stadtmueller’s statements at the October 2008 meeting required his recusal.  In re United States of America (No. 09-2264) (Ripple, J.). 

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Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: Silence and Consent

seventh-circuit2In 2006, Jarrett James robbed the same bank in Middleton, Wisconsin, on two different occasions, getting away with about $120,000.  He was later apprehended, convicted in federal court, and sentenced to 42 years in prison.  His appeal centered on the government’s warrantless seizure of a safe from his mother’s home.  The safe contained a gun matching a description of the weapon used in one of the robberies.  When the government sought to use the gun as evidence against him at trial, James argued unsuccessfully that the gun should be suppressed because it was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In United States v. James (No. 08-3327), the Seventh Circuit (per Judge Flaum) also rejected the Fourth Amendment claim and affirmed James’ conviction.  Specifically, the court held that the seizure complied with the Fourth Amendment because James’ mother consented to a police officer taking the safe.  The holding is notable because James’ mother never expressly agreed to the seizure; the case thus illustrates circumstances in which Fourth Amendment consent may be inferred from silence.  The case also raises interesting questions regarding the mother’s motivations and the underlying parent-child dynamics.

Continue ReadingSeventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: Silence and Consent