SCOTUS: No Automatic Reversal of Conviction When Judge Improperly Participated in Plea Discussions

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 sets forth various requirements and prohibitions relating to guilty pleas, including a ban on judges participating in plea discussions. If there is a violation, Rule 11(h) specifies that a “variance from the requirements of this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights” — no harm, no foul. However, at least two circuits have adopted a rule of automatic vacatur of the guilty plea if the judge participated in plea discussions. Other circuits, including the Seventh, have applied the general 11(h) harmless error rule in these situations.

Earlier today, in United States v. Davila (No. 12-167), the U.S. Supreme Court unamimously resolved the circuit split in favor of the general harmless error rule. As the Court saw it, the legal question was an easy one: “[N]either Rule 11 itself, not the Advisory Committee’s commentary on the Rule singles out any instructions [in Rule 11] as more basic than others. And Rule 11(h), specifically designed to stop automatic vacaturs, calls for across-the-board application of the harmless-error prescription . . . .”

The Court declined to adopt any bright-line rules regarding the application of the harmless-error rule: “Our essential point is that particular facts and circumstances matter.” Having determined that the lower court should have applied the harmless-error rule, the Court chose to remand for further consideration of the “particular facts and circumstances.” At the same time, the Court did say, “Had Davila’s guilty plea followed soon after the Magistrate Judge told Davila that pleading guilty be the ‘best advice’ a lawyer could give him, this case may not have warranted our attention.” The suggestion seems to be that a guilty plea entered “soon after” the judge recommended such a course of action would pretty clearly not fall into the category of harmless error. What made Davila’s case more difficult was the three-month delay between the Rule 11 violation and the guilty plea.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

Continue ReadingSCOTUS: No Automatic Reversal of Conviction When Judge Improperly Participated in Plea Discussions

Seventh Circuit Honors the Late Judge John L. Coffey at Eckstein Hall

coffeyforwebJudge John L. Coffey, a man of strong conviction and strong faith, was remembered for his positive impact on family, the courts, and the legal profession in a ceremony April 17 in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall.

Nine judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit were on the bench at the ceremonial session in memory of Coffey, who died last November at 90. Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook said the location was appropriate because Coffey “thought the world of this school—this is where Jack Coffey would have wanted this celebration.” Coffey graduated from Marquette University in 1943 and from Marquette Law School in 1948 and was well known for his loyalty to Marquette.

Beginning in 1954, Coffey served as a judge in Milwaukee County, until he became a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1978. He joined the federal appeals court in 1982. In 2012, he announced he would not take part in cases—although, as was noted during the session, he didn’t really say he was retiring either.

“Jack did not see much ambiguity,” Easterbrook said. He described Coffey as a passionate advocate who once emphasized a written point he was making by underlining, bold-facing, and italicizing the passage. “He missed only the opportunity to put it in a larger font,” Easterbrook said.

Coffey was “a rock when it came to defending his principles,” Judge Rudolph T. Randa of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin told the audience of about 200.

Marquette Law School Dean Joseph D. Kearney said, “Jack Coffey focused relentlessly on the future,” including the future of the Law School. Coffey was one of the first alumni to encourage Kearney to consider leading the Law School out of Sensenbrenner Hall.

Francis Schmitz, who was a law clerk for Coffey in 1983-84, said that working for Coffey “was not unlike the parental concept known as tough love.” The judge was a demanding, no-excuses, no- cutting-corners boss who cared greatly and compassionately about those who worked for him, Schmitz said.

Peter Robbins, a grandson of the judge, said Coffey asked for divine guidance every day because he sat in judgment of others. He believed in hard work—“he always endeavored to know more”—but his family meant everything to him, Robbins said.

Coffey’s son, Peter Coffey, recounted how his father was one of ten children, all of whom graduated from Marquette.

Easterbrook said that Coffey had a reputation of being a dissenter, but during Coffey’s time on the federal appeals bench, there were 93 cases heard en banc and Coffey was in the majority in 78. He wrote the opinions in 11, which, Easterbrook said, was more than his share. “We miss his presence in our circles,” Easterbrook said.

Continue ReadingSeventh Circuit Honors the Late Judge John L. Coffey at Eckstein Hall

Sentence Not Improperly Enhanced Based on Defendant’s Silence, Seventh Circuit Rules

At sentencing, defendants are expected to express remorse for their crimes.  Indeed, the defendant who fails to impress the judge with the sincerity of his contrition is apt to face a longer sentence on that basis.  But what if the defendant chooses to say nothing at all at sentencing?  On the one hand, a judge might infer a lack of remorse from the defendant’s silence.  But, on the other, there seems some tension between penalizing a defendant’s failure to speak and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

The Seventh Circuit addressed this tension earlier today in United States v. Keskes (No. 12-1127) (Tinder, J.).  Convicted of mail fraud, Keskes apparently declined the opportunity to allocute at his sentencing.  The district judge then made note of this in finding a lack of remorse and increasing Keskes’ sentence on that basis.  On appeal, Keskes argued that the sentence violated his right to remain silent.  The Seventh Circuit, however, affirmed.

Continue ReadingSentence Not Improperly Enhanced Based on Defendant’s Silence, Seventh Circuit Rules