John Hinckley, Jr. and the Rule of Law

Today the airwaves are ablaze with news that John Hinckley, Jr. — would-be assassin of President Reagan — will be released from a mental institution to live with his elderly mother. United States District Judge Paul L. Friedman's order permitting this release comes more than 35 years after Hinckley's bloody assault, which wounded President Reagan, gravely and permanently disabled his press secretary James Brady, and injured a police officer and a secret service agent.

People are outraged. Why wouldn't they be? Assassinations have cast a grim pall over American history. President Reagan was well-liked and is nearly revered in retrospect. The assassination attempt was a formative event in the memory of many people my age. How, people ask, can you shoot four people, one of them a President, and ever see the light of day again? If any act requires permanent confinement, isn't it this one?

The answer should comfort us, not terrify us: the rule of law applies to everyone, even the notorious. (Edited to add: or, at least, it ought to.)

Hinckley was not convicted of the attempted murder of President Reagan — a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Criminal defense lawyers will tell you that it is exceptionally difficult to convince a jury to reach such a verdict. In (another) era of great anxiety of crime, in a case involving a popular President, the odds were weighed even more heavily against Hinckley. If you think that it's outrageous that someone who tries to kill the President could use the insanity defense, bear in mind that the defense has its roots in cases of mentally ill people attempting assassinations. Nevertheless, public outrage led to nationwide narrowing of the defense, notwithstanding the fact that it was rarely used and even more rarely successful.

Now, after 35 years of confinement (with gradually increasing exceptions) in a mental institution, the court has found that Hinckley is suitable for release under the provisions of the relevant laws governing patients committed to institutions after such verdicts:

(e) . . . . The court shall weigh the evidence and, if the court finds that such person has recovered his sanity and will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, the court shall order such person unconditionally released from further confinement in said hospital.

It was not a casual decision. Judge Friedman's order is 103 pages long, and builds on a history of other long orders. The order meticulously reviews the testimony at an evidentiary hearing, the unanimous conclusions of multiple doctors (including the government's own experts) regarding Hinckley's mental state and lack of dangerousness, and the history of his gradually increasing liberties granted by the hospital and the court. In addition, the court sets rather rigorous limitations on Hinckley's freedom, considerably in excess of what one would normally see for a convict released on parole or supervised release — for instance, the court limits Hinckley's access to the internet and ability to communicate with the public to head off the sort of attention-seeking and grandiosity that was part of his delusional structure (see page 99-100 of the order).

Perhaps you find Hinckley's release outrageous. If so, ask yourself why. Is the outrageous part that there's a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity? Is the outrageous part that a jury found it applied, in a case where everyone agreed that Hinckley was crazy, and only disagreed about whether he was responsible? Is the outrageous part that such people can be released after 35 years under strict conditions if doctors agree they are in remission and not dangerous? Is the outrageous part that a judge found that the facts here warranted such a release? Or is the outrageous part that some crimes are so notorious that you think they should be outside the rules, outside the rule of law?

Is John Hinckley, Jr. dangerous to society? Doctors don't think so after 35 years, and he's successfully completed many outside visits and excursions to date. Is it dangerous to have a legal norm that the gravely mentally ill who commit violence may eventually be released? I doubt 35 years of forced treatment and confinement is the sort of lenity that leads anyone to violence. What about exceptions to the rule of law? If we ignore the rules and evidence because a particular person is sufficiently notorious, because of our gut, how dangerous is that?

Lawsplainer: Are Milo's Faked Tweets Defamatory?

I'm not going to address the broad subject of Twitter banning the needy, cynical huckster Milo Yiannopoulos. It's been done, you know what I'd say, and I don't have much to add.

I'll address just one small piece of the story. Before he was banned, Yiannopoulos retweeted bigoted tweets fabricated to look like Leslie Jones had uttered them. The tweets were fake, and Yiannopoulos knew they were fake.

Was it defamatory for Yiannopoulos to circulate the faked tweets falsely attributing bigoted statements to Jones?

The answer: probably not, given Yiannopoulos' reputation.

Only false statements of fact can be defamatory. Satire, ridicule, and insults cannot. The faked tweets were intended as trolling and — to use the term extraordinarily generously — "satire", not as a factual claim that Jones had uttered the words. Could some people look at the fake tweets and assume they were real and that Jones actually said those things? Yes. But courts give very broad protection to satire, and protect it even when some people take it seriously. In determining whether a challenged statement should be taken as satire/ridicule/insult/hyperbole or as a statement of fact, courts look at how a reasonable audience familiar with the speaker and the context would take it. In other words, the relevant question is whether the speaker's target audience, informed about the circumstances surrounding the statement, would take the statement as an assertion of fact. I wrote about this in 2013 when I described a D.C. Circuit opinion rejecting a WorldNetDaily lawsuit against Esquire. Esquire's satire of Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi was protected people readers familiar with Esquire would recognize their story as a parody, not as a news story. Similarly, readers familiar with Popehat would recognize that my accusing Farah and Corsi of sexual molestation of walruses was satire serving as an example of the doctrine, even if someone unfamiliar with Popehat or the case might take it seriously.

Here, a reasonable audience familiar with the context (Yiannopoulos trolling and attacking someone for clicks and attention, and playing to his hooting bigoted admirers) and with the speaker (Yiannopoulos as a hack troll, known for hyperbole and insult, whose followers often fake tweets as a means of ridicule) would likely not take the fake tweets as real, particularly when he fairly quickly followed up with a mock-surprised "you mean those aren't real?" wink to his fans.

I'm not saying that no court could find otherwise. I'm saying that's the most likely result, and probably the correct one under the law.

Remember: nobody needs free speech rights to protect admirable speech by people we like. It's designed to protect despised speech by people we hate. Yiannopoulos deserves contempt for monetizing bigotry, and his fans are loathsome, but his speech is protected.

Ask Popehat! Joe Manchin Edition

Welcome to Ask Popehat!, the feature where we take your questions on topics ranging from law to ethics to proper child rearing, and give sensible easily digested answers that you can share with friends and family at the dinner table. For this edition, we'd like to welcome Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. As the distinguished former Governor and Attorney General of the Mountain State, Senator Manchin has graciously agreed to provide his wisdom on the difficult job of upholding the Constitution during times of emergency and civil strife. Our question to Senator Manchin comes from Edith H., of Anchorage Alaska.

Senator Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin

Dear Senator Manchin:

I was shocked and heartbroken at this week's deaths at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, though I'm still learning the facts. Like a lot of Americans, I'd like to know how the shooter was able to get his hands on a semi-automatic rifle when he'd been investigated by the FBI, not once but twice.  Wasn't that a crime? Shouldn't the government have prevented him from obtaining a dangerous weapon, just to be sure?

Edith in Anchorage.

Senator Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin

Dear Edith:

Thank you for your questions. Like you, I was dismayed to wake up Sunday morning to see news of this tragedy. And let me tell you, as a former prosecutor, once I recovered from my grief I turned to the first question anyone should ask when tragedy occurs:

Who is responsible?

There are many we could blame for this atrocity, starting with the obvious: the shooter himself. By all accounts Omar Mateen was a psychopath, with deeply strange sexual hang-ups and a twisted, murderous interpretation of his religion. Some would say that alone explains his awful crimes, and that we should be thankful he's no longer around. That's what many ordinary people would say. But as a former prosecutor, and a United States lawmaker, my job is to probe deeper, to prevent tragedies of this sort from occurring again. And I'm glad to say that I have found the true culprit behind these crimes. That culprit is the United States Constitution.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of the Constitution, in many respects. I'm a great admirer of Article I, which gives United States Senators, like myself, the power to maintain a Journal of Proceedings. And to be compensated by law for our service to this great nation. As well as to provide and maintain a Navy. Did you know that even though West Virginia is landlocked, the Navy keeps our rivers free of pirates? God bless our beautiful mountain streams. And God bless the United States Navy.

But as much as I love our brave fighting sailors, the Constitution is a deeply flawed document, which has been twisted even further by bleeding heart judges and corrupt defense attorneys for criminals. Why, did you know that the Constitution says, at least according to some, that a criminal's life, liberty, and property cannot be taken away without "due process of law?"

I was gobsmacked when I first heard that.

You see, some judges, bless their hearts, have gotten it into their heads that we in the United States Senate cannot pass a law to keep potential troublemakers from getting into mischief, or sending them to prison, or taking away their possessions, unless a judge (naturally) and jury have said they actually broke some other law that was already on the books? That's what "due process of law" means.

That's what killed those poor people in Orlando. And it's killing us all.

Edith, as a United States Senator, my job is to keep good Americans like you safe from all enemies foreign and domestic. But as powerful as I am, in some ways my hands are tied. How can I keep you safe from an enemy domestic if I can't order him locked up for your own protection? Or maybe we don't want to actually, you know, put him in jail. Maybe we just want him to shut the funk up, pardon my French. There are a lot of dangerous weirdos out there, saying stupid things that give dumb people the wrong idea about America. Why should they be able to spout off at will, if we in the Senate have determined they're wrong? Why should they be able to buy a gun, if the brave men and women of our Federal Bureau of Investigation think they may be up to no good, some day?

I'll tell you why. It's because pointy-headed judges have arrogated to themselves the power to interpret our sacred Constitution, a job that's reserved to the Senate. Our founding fathers, men like Aaron Burr, our third Vice President, and Jefferson Davis, a great Senator from Mississippi and a brave Secretary of War, didn't hold with toxic notions like this "due process of law." And neither should we.

Of course, Edith, I'm not suggesting that we should put ordinary Americans on lists of people whose rights aren't protected. I love our rights, and I know you do too. We'd never keep you from exercising your God-given right to own a hunting rifle, and to shoot as many turkeys as federal regulations permit. West Virginia is prime turkey-hunting country. If you and your husband enjoy the excitement of turkey shoots as much as I do, we'd love to show you some Mountain State hospitality at our fine hunting resorts.

No, I'm speaking of them, Edith. People who don't love America the way you and I do. I think you know who they are. They're out there, in the mosques and madrassas and "civil liberties" rallies, plotting the downfall of our great nation, and speaking ill of our ancient institutions, like the United States Senate, the greatest legislative body in the world. And one day, if they're not stopped, they'll each of them shoot up a hundred night clubs. Unless we stop them from owning firearms, for their own good, and our own protection.

Kindest regards, and God bless our United States Navy,

Joe Manchin.

Lawsplainer: IT'S NOT RICO, DAMMIT

I have a question.

Angels and ministers of grace defend me.

Would it be RICO if . . .



. . . .


But how do you know? I haven't even described the case yet.

It's never RICO!

I mean, not literally never. But I can say with a very high level of confidence that if you're asking me, it's not RICO.

But it's an important case! And the facts are terrible! This defendant did really bad things.

That's not what RICO means. RICO is not a fucking frown emoji. It's not an exclamation point. It's not a rhetorical tool to convey you are upset about something. It's not a petulant foot-stomp.

RICO is a really complicated racketeering law that has elaborate requirements that are difficult to meet. It's overused by idiot plaintiff lawyers, and it's ludicrously overused by a hundred million jackasses on the internet with an opinion and a mood disorder.

You have a really big vein throbbing on your head and I am concerned it is going to burst and it will be really gross.

I'm going to need a minute here.

Calm. Peaceful. Go to your happy place.


Okay. I'm good. Proceed.

So what is RICO, anyway?

RICO is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, because goddamn Congress likes acronyms like your great-aunt likes porcelain cats.

Congress passed it in 1970 to address organized crime. It was specifically designed to help with some of the difficulty that prosecutors traditionally had in cracking big organized crime rings — mafia families, drug trafficking organizations, that sort of thing.

What sort of problems?

The stuff that crime bosses did was already illegal. But it could be very hard to attack the whole enterprise instead of one act after another. You could take down some mook for one street assault, but you couldn't take down the mook's boss's boss. You had to nibble at the edges, and meanwhile the crime family or drug ring or whatever kept making money.

RICO was designed as a way to describe, legally, the whole criminal enterprise based on some of its acts, go after people who supported it, and take its assets.

Why not just charge a conspiracy?

Good question. A RICO claim is really just an elaborate over-complicated conspiracy claim. The answer, in part, was that it was 1970, crime was way up, Nixonian "law and order" was popular, and everyone wanted to be seen as doing something.

Wait. I thought RICO let you sue people. It's a criminal law?

It's both.

And even though it was passed to deal with large-scale organized crime, now it's vastly overused — not so much by the government, but definitely by plaintiff attorneys.

So you can't sue people for RICO?

Oh you can. It's just that almost all of the time you'll be wrong to do so. A RICO claim doesn't mean "these are bad people." It doesn't mean "they did bad things." It doesn't mean "they did lots of bad things" or "they did bad things over state lines" or "they did bad things and some of them were crimes" or "they did bad things and we need to take them really seriously."

But that's how people use RICO — as an idiotic rhetorical device. Like this:


Wow. I'm only an abstract imaginary foil written to sound like an idiot and even I know that's really stupid.

I know, right? But I hear his books are good.

So people on the Internet use "RICO" to sound tough. Do lawyers overuse it too?

Oh hell yes. And judges hate it. It's overcomplicated and most of the time it adds nothing to the case.

It's so overused — especially by crazy pro se plaintiffs — and so needless that a lot of federal judges have special RICO orders they issue in RICO cases demanding that the plaintiff explain, in painful detail, why they think they have a RICO claim. Like this one, for instance. Judges issue them automatically as soon as a RICO case hits their docket to gather information to dismiss the case because it's not fucking RICO you idiot.

So what would be a righteous civil RICO claim, as opposed to all the bogus ones?

Let me answer that by telling you the elements of civil RICO — that is, the list of things a plaintiff would have to prove to win a RICO case.

To win, a plaintiff would have to prove (1) conduct, (2) of an enterprise, (3) through a pattern, (4) of racketeering activity called "predicate acts," (5) causing injury to the plaintiff’s "business or property."

Each of those terms means something complicated — each term is a gateway to a whole bunch of other issues.

Okay. What's "conduct"?

That just means that you have to prove that the particular defendant has a role in the operation or management of the enterprise.

Wait. Isn't the defendant the enterprise?

No. In fact the defendant can't be the same as the enterprise.

An enterprise is a legal entity or group of people. So, for instance, the Gambino Crime Family can be an enterprise, or Prenda Law. But the enterprise has to be different than the defendant for a RICO claim. Instead, the defendants have to be people and entities who run the enterprise. So if you filed a crazy pro se complaint saying that General Motors is a criminal enterprise and named General Motors as the defendant, your claim would be legally insufficient.

That sounds convoluted.

It is. But remember — RICO wasn't supposed to be an everyday tool. It's supposed to be a way to take down slippery crime families.

Okay. So what's a pattern?

A pattern is at least two acts of racketeering activity — which we'll get back to later — over a ten year period. The activity has to be both "related" and "continuous."

"Related" means that it's part of the same effort — so if your crime family does drugs, prostitution, and extortion, all of those could be related. "Continuous" means you have to show either a series of acts over a substantial period of time, or past conduct that by its nature suggests it will continue.

Again, RICO's supposed to be about organized crime. So if you and I decide to knock over a bank, that's not RICO — it's not part of a pattern of conduct, even if the FBI can find more than two charges to apply to it. The idea of RICO is "these people are in the crime business, and as part of the crime business they committed a crime against me."

So what's "racketeering activity"?

Racketeering activity is the commission of a whole bunch of very specific federal crimes. But it's not just any crime. It's only the ones on the list.

That's one of the reasons that the "[advocacy organization I don't like] should be sued for RICO!" arguments are so infuriating. Where's the underlying federal crime? And how is it harming the plaintiff's business or property? RICO doesn't mean "this organization advocates things that are bad for society."

So that's it, right?

No, remember the last element — you have to show that all of the foregoing causes injury to the plaintiff's business or property. It can't be a harm to society at large.

Also, you can sue someone for conspiring to commit RICO — meaning you have to show they agreed to do all that.

Is criminal RICO the same?

Mostly. It's more complicated. It can include a RICO conspiracy or acquiring a share in a RICO enterprise or to use a RICO enterprise to collect debt.

This sounds hard to allege and prove.

It is. It's really difficult even to allege it right in a complaint. RICO claims usually generate a series of motions to dismiss. That's why judges often have standing orders requiring plaintiffs to explain how and why they are claiming RICO — that's something judges don't do for almost any other cause of action. Most of the time, if a civil plaintiff can prove RICO, they can much more easily prove fraud or other more straightforward claims.

So why bring a civil RICO claim?

Well, if you win, you can get attorney fees, and possibly even triple your actual damages.

But mostly I think it's a scare tactic and a propaganda tool, as its idiotic rhetorical misuse suggests. Lawyers bring RICO claims so they can say "the defendant's behavior is so criminal that we sued them for RICO!" Dupes play along by describing RICO claims as "charges," and generally by acting like a RICO claim suggests that there's already been a finding that someone did something wrong.

It doesn't mean that. A RICO claim just means someone wrote down a RICO claim and filed it. Even if the RICO claim survives a motion to dismiss, that just means that a plaintiff was able to allege a complex set of facts in a convoluted way. It doesn't mean those facts are true.

So why do we still have civil RICO?

Mostly because Congress is more scared of being called soft on crime than they are interested in reforming time-wasting abusive statutes.

There have been some reforms. One Congressional amendment prevented plaintiffs from using securities fraud as a racketeering act under the statute, probably because investment banks donate enough to members of Congress. And every now and again someone proposes reform. But it's dry, boring, and complicated, so it never goes anywhere. For now, we're stuck with it: a convoluted statute used by twits and crazies to make litigation more expensive, and waved around by morons like a big foam finger at a ball game.

Well that's a little pessimistic.

Everything is shit.

Would you like a cookie?

. . . yes.

Hello! You've Been Referred Here Because You're Wrong About The First Amendment.

Welcome! Someone has referred you to this post because you've said something quite wrong about the First Amendment.

I apologize for this impersonal approach to your mistake. I would prefer to offer you an artisanal response to your wrongness, something that would respect and celebrate the unique ways that you've taken one of the most fundamental aspects of our mutual civic heritage as Americans and shat your ignorance upon it. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of you and only one of me, and I'm busy, and lazy. Also, quite frankly I feel that if I have to explain these things to just one more person, I may go quite mad. I don't mean mad in the vaguely amusing, sympathetic, relatable ways that people expect from me. I mean mad in an uncouth and alarming sense that will likely result in my calamitous misuse of some implement residing in the dark marchlands between tool and weapon, such as an adze.

So. Constrained as we are by this impersonal medium, let's discuss why you are completely wrong.

If you said something like "The First Amendment says 'Congress shall make no law,' and Congress isn't involved here, so it's not a First Amendment issue."

Congratulations! You've read the First Amendment. Even if you've ignored the last century of discourse about it, this raises you above most of the populace, particularly on the Internet.

You're right that the plain language of the First Amendment only limits Congressional power. But you've ignored some American history. Don't worry: you've only ignored a century and a half of it. The Bill of Rights was originally understood to limit the power of the federal government without limiting the states. But in 1868, after some recent unpleasantness, we amended the Constitution to add the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes this language: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." By its own terms, the Fourteenth Amendment forbids the states from infringing certain rights.

But which rights? Well, in the early 20th Century, the United States Supreme Court decided that certain fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are included in the concept of liberty identified in the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore protected from infringement by "due process of law." This process — under which the court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated by reference rights from the Bill of Rights and made them enforceable against the states — is called incorporation, and the notion is called the incorporation doctrine. The Supreme Court has decided that most, but not all, rights from the Bill of Rights are incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore protected from infringement by states. The Supreme Court decided — or, to be more accurate, assumed — in a 1925 decision that freedom of speech under the First Amendment is one of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights that the states may not infringe because it is incorporated by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Therefore, the First Amendment does apply to actions by states and their political subdivisions (cities, counties, state agencies, etc.), and has for more than ninety years. You're wrong. Please stop being wrong and asking other people to be wrong with you.

If you said something like "the First Amendment only stops the government from censoring you so it doesn't apply to this civil case, which is one individual suing another."

Welcome back! You're still wrong. The First Amendment limits your ability to sue people.

Civil lawsuits employ government power in two ways. First, they are premised on laws passed by legislatures. A defamation lawsuit is a lawsuit based upon a defamation law enacted by a state, which is an action by the state. On occasion, they're based on a nebulous collection of non-statutory precedents called common law, which are nonetheless recognized and enforced by the government through the courts. Second, civil lawsuits employ government power to force you to come to court and force you to pay any resulting judgment against you.

So in 1964, faced with an Alabama defamation judgment against the New York Times for running an advertisement about abuse of civil rights protesters by local officials, the Supreme Court noted that the First Amendment obviously applies to private civil actions that employ state power. "The test is not the form in which state power has been applied but, whatever the form, whether such power has, in fact, been exercised." Because civil lawsuits aimed at speech invoke state power to attack speech, they are limited by the First Amendment. That doesn't mean that all civil lawsuits attacking speech are absolutely barred. It means that First Amendment analysis applies to them, and may or may not provide a defense to them.

If you think about it even a little, this is the only sensible interpretation. Under a contrary interpretation, a state could pass a law saying that private parties could sue you for offending them, or annoying them, or for expressing certain political views the state disfavors. People could then use the coercive power of the courts to sue you based on those laws. Although I admit there is a certain appeal to a regime under which I may ask a judge to compel you to pay my bar tab if you say stupid and ignorant things about the First Amendment, I recognize that it is not consistent with ordered liberty.

So: you're wrong, stop trying to spread wrong like gonorrhea in the Theater Department, try to be right, etc etc etc.

Fault: It's Yours, But Not ONLY Yours

You are at fault for not educating yourself about how our most fundamental American rights operate. However, you are not the only one at fault. Wrongness is not a zero-sum game. I also blame your teachers, although I sympathize with them. Also, America's press could not do a worse job informing you about the First Amendment if it tried, which frequently I believe it does. If you would like to know more about some of the ways that the American media shares blame for you being wrong, consider these classic media free speech tropes. If you would like to observe some of the ways that the educational system has failed us, attempt conversation with a college student.

I bid you good day.

Lawsplainer: When Must Federal Judges Recuse Themselves, Anyway?

I have a question about Donald Trump.

Hell. I am in Hell. This is Hell.

Calm down. I just want to ask about his argument about that federal judge hearing the Trump University case.

Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the United States District Judge hearing two related cases against Trump and Trump University, which I wrote about last week?


You couldn't retain his name for six whole days?

You're going to make this difficult, aren't you?

You have no idea.

I just want to know whether Trump has any law on his side. When do federal judges have to recuse themselves?


There are two federal laws governing recusal. One is about procedure, the other is about substance.

Title 18, United States Code, section 455 governs substance. It starts with a catch-all:

(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

Then it offers specifics:

(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:

(1) Where he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding;

(2) Where in private practice he served as lawyer in the matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom he previously practiced law served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter, or the judge or such lawyer has been a material witness concerning it;

(3) Where he has served in governmental employment and in such capacity participated as counsel, adviser or material witness concerning the proceeding or expressed an opinion concerning the merits of the particular case in controversy;

(4) He knows that he, individually or as a fiduciary, or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;

(5) He or his spouse, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse of such a person:

(i) Is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, or trustee of a party;

(ii) Is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;

(iii) Is known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;

(iv) Is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.

So all federal judges are dudes?

Don't start with me.

That "might reasonably be questioned" is awfully broad. Doesn't that mean Trump is right?

Only if you pretend the last century of law didn't happen. Federal courts have ruled many, many times about what is a "reasonable" question and what isn't. "Reasonableness" is defined in the context of some fundamental assumptions about the legal system — especially that judges generally won't act like sectarians based on their race and religion. Moreover, courts recognize that all judges had lives before becoming judges, and those lives necessarily involved a wide range of affiliations. Plus, the test is based on the perception of a reasonable person, a "well-informed, thoughtful, and objective observer, rather than the hypersensitive, cynical, and suspicious person." So. Not a Trumpalo, not a Clintonista.

So Trump's argument that a "Mexican" can't hear is case is bogus?

Beyond the shadow of a doubt based on a century of law. Many courts have considered and rejected the argument that a judge of a particular ethnicity, gender, or religion is inherently biased because of the nature of the case. In fact, the argument has been so repeatedly and thoroughly rejected that it's sanctionable to make it.

What other kinds of arguments have federal courts rejected?

You want me to do a lot of research, don't you? I'm going to cheat and summarize straight from the Rutter Guide: federal courts have rejected arguments that judges' impartiality could reasonably be questioned based on their pre-judicial law practice focus, their special expertise, their memberships in groups prior to appointment, their political views discussed prior to appointment, their giving lectures or writing on the topics involved in the case, their expression of opinions about propositions of law, their political donations before appointment, which President appointed them, where they went to school, and their chosen political party.

Wow. It sounds hard to force recusal. When have courts required it?

Again I cheated by looking at Rutter! Courts have ruled that judges should have recused themselves when they had pending employment offers from a party's law firm, when they had a close personal relationship with counsel for a case, when they had a close personal relationship with a party or witness, when the court's staff was employed by or very close to a party, when a close family member is a lawyer at a party's law firm, when the judge was a trustee of an entity that is a party, when the judge previously worked on the case as an attorney, when they had recently been a losing defendant in a lawsuit by a party, or when the judge has personal knowledge of disputed facts in the case as a witness.

In addition, sometimes a judge's comments about a case can require recusal when they show bias.

Really? But Trump says that Judge Curiel's rulings show bias. Doesn't that require recusal?

No. Bias has to be extrajudicial. That means that you can't recuse a judge just because the judge has concluded and expressed that your case is weak or that your lawyer is acting like a jackass in court. You absolutely can't recuse a judge because they ruled against you. Recusal is only required when a judge displays bias arising from knowledge or grounds from an inappropriate source, not from sitting on your case. To require recusal based on the judge's comments about his or her observations of the proceedings, the comments have to be truly extreme — "such a high degree of favoritism or antagonism to make a fair judgment impossible."

So: a wartime judge who says that "[o]ne must have a very judicial mind, indeed, not to be prejudiced against German Americans because their hearts are reeking with disloyalty.” That's extrajudicial bias requiring recusal. Saying that the evidence shows that the defendant behaved badly, or that the plaintiff's arguments lack merit? That's not.

But can't judge Curiel's impartiality be reasonably questioned now that Trump has repeatedly attacked him?

No. It's extremely well established — as well-established as anything in federal law — that you can't judge-shop by being a douche. A party's insults, criticisms, and even threats are not a valid basis for recusal. Otherwise you could judge-shop by attacking judges until you found one you liked.

What about Judge Curiel's membership in a Latino organization?

Leaving aside for the moment whether the attack is deliberately dishonest because it conflates a bar association with a political advocacy group, membership before becoming a judge isn't grounds for recusal. Moreover, membership in a religious organization is not grounds for recusal. Membership in bar associations and legal associations like the one at issue here has repeatedly been found not to require recusal. That's not just for ethnic organizations. So, for instance, membership in the Guild of Catholic Lawyers was not a basis for recusal in a suit against the New York Archdiocese. Hoatson v. New York Archdiocese, 280 Fed.Appx. 88 (2nd Cir. 2008).

I will note that calling an organization "the race," even if you don't mean it that way and the phrase has been used to mean other things and it's history is totally different and it's not the same thing at all so shut up, is kind of asking for trouble.

Even if one argues that Judge Curiel's membership in a Latino attorney organization might show bias, Trump's lawyers would have a problem: they'd be arguing that the alleged bias didn't arise until long after Judge Curiel started hearing the case. Trump's argument, to the extent it can be nailed down, is that Trump wants to build a wall and Judge Curiel is a member of a Latino organization and therefore Judge Curiel is biased. But Trump didn't start talking about building a wall until Judge Curiel had already been hearing the case for years. In general, a party can't manufacture bias through new conduct after the judge has been assigned. That stops parties from judge-shopping. So, for instance, if I don't like how my case is going before a Turkish-American federal judge who is a member of a Turkish-American group, I can't force a judge-switch by becoming a loud advocate for official recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

So Judge Curiel was right to refuse to recuse himself?

Judge Curiel hasn't refused because Trump's lawyers haven't made a motion for recusal, because they know it's without merit. Recusal motions are governed by Title 28, United States Code, section 144. If you make such a motion, the targeted judge looks at it to make sure it is timely and generally legally sufficient — that is, not facially ridiculous. If it clears that low hurdle, it goes to a different judge for determination, and the case is stayed in the meantime. Trump's made no such motion.

Do you think his attorneys will make such a motion?


So what's Trump doing?

Posturing and playing to crowds who don't like judges, or "Mexicans," or especially "Mexican" judges. Puerile "Alpha" bullshit.

Can't Judge Curiel just say "fuck this noise, I'm out" and recuse?

No. Federal judges have an affirmative obligation not to recuse themselves except for legally sufficient grounds. That stops the reverse of judge-shopping: ditching unpleasant, boring, or otherwise undesirable cases.

Maybe Trump and his supporters don't agree with this legal precedent?

Maybe they don't. But as far as I know Trump never got upset about federal recusal law until he ran for President. And I haven't heard him, or his supporters, argue that he's being oppressed by a century of wrongly-decided law; I've heard them make uninformed or deliberately false statements about what the law requires.

Lawsplainer: Is There Anything Unusual About Judge Curiel's Orders In The Trump University Case?

Where have you been?

Busy. Lawyering. Parenting. Playing Stellaris. Thus and such.

You have obligations!

You have genital warts.

Hey! Be nice. So, what's up with this crazy judge?

You'll have to be far more specific.

You know, the judge who has it in for Donald Trump.

Oh. United States District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge that has Trump's jimmies all berustled? This guy?

The trial, they wanted it to start while I am running for President. The trial is going to take place sometime in November. There should be no trial. This should have been dismissed on summary judgment easily. Everybody says it, but I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curial. And he is not doing the right thing. I figure what the hell? Why not talk about it for two minutes. Should I talk about it? Yes? [cheers and applause] so we should have won. . . .

I am getting railroaded by a legal system, and frankly they should be ashamed. I will be here in November. Hey, if I win as president, it is a civil case. I could have settled this case numerous times. But I don’t want to settle cases when we are right. I don’t believe in it. When you start settling cases, do you know what happens? Everybody sues you because you get known as a settler. One thing about me, I am not known as the settler.

And people understand with this whole thing, with this whole deal with the lawyers, class action lawyers are the worst. It is a scam. Here is what happens. We are in front of a very hostile judge. The judge was appointed by by Barack Obama – federal judge. [Boos]. Frankly he should recuse himself. He has given us ruling after ruling, negative, negative, negative. I have a top lawyer who said he has never seen anything like this before. So what happens is we get sued. We have a Magistrate named William Gallo who truly hates us.

Yeah, that guy. Is he biased against Trump? Are his rulings outrageous or unusual?

No. I mean, I'm biased against Trump. But Judge Curiel's rulings in the case do not seem extraordinary.

What's the case about, anyway?

There are actually two relevant cases before Judge Curiel.

The first is a purported class action filed in 2010, asserting that Trump and Trump University violated California's ridiculously overbroad and malleable unfair business practices law, California's consumer protection laws, California's false advertising laws, that they breached Trump U's contracts, and that they defrauded students, among other things.

The second case is a 2013 purported class action by the same lawyers with the same purported classes of student plaintiffs asserting that Trump and Trump University violated RICO laws.

Wait a second. Don't you always say that civil RICO is bullshit?

Yes. In general, if the defendants don't have "the" in their names, civil RICO is overwrought bullshit. A purported RICO claim split into a separate complaint smells like particularly obvious bullshit. More on that later.

So why didn't Judge Curiel get rid of this at summary judgment, like Trump says?

First you've got to understand what summary judgment is. It's not "my evidence is stronger."

Here's how it works. One side files a motion attacking the complaint, or certain causes of action in the complaint, or maybe a defense, and points out to the court (usually by attaching evidence from discovery) that there is no evidence supporting the other side's position. Then the burden shifts to the other side to come forward with admissible evidence supporting their claim or defense.

So, for instance, say you sue me for copyright infringement for posting your art on Popehat. I could make a motion for summary judgment supplying my declaration that I never posted your art on Popehat. The burden would then shift to you to come forward with admissible evidence — say, a declaration from you, with screenshots — to show that there is a dispute of material fact. That means you have to offer evidence that there's a factual dispute about a fact that's meaningful to the claim at issue.

And then the judge decides who is right?

To be more precise, the judge then evaluates whether there is any evidence to support the attacked claim or defense.

The judge doesn't weigh evidence or determine credibility. If I have 20 declarations saying that your art never appeared on Popehat, and you have one declaration saying that it did, then you win the motion because there is some evidence supporting your claim. But if you can't supply admissible evidence — say, if you can only offer hearsay that someone told you they saw your art on Popehat — then I win.

So what happened here?

In the 2010 case, Donald Trump filed one motion for summary judgment and Trump University filed another.

Trump's own motion argued that he didn't make any of the alleged misrepresentations about Trump University that plaintiffs claim and therefore couldn't be held liable for them, and that the law didn't allow them the damages they demanded. Trump University argued that the law doesn't allow the plaintiffs the damages and injunctions they are asking for. The plaintiffs opposed both motions, arguing they had offered admissible evidence creating factual disputes about Trump's personal liability and Trump University's liability.

So Judge Curiel shot Trump down?

Partially, but not completely. Judge Curiel issued a very detailed 44-page order analyzing the arguments. The order has a good review of the evidence that the plaintiffs offered to support their case.

Ultimately he granted the motions in part and denied them in part. He threw out all of the demands for injunctive relief against Trump University, but kept the demands for restitution and other forms of monetary relief. He based that order on an earlier ruling limiting the class action claims. As to Donald Trump himself, Judge Curiel found that plaintiffs had offered admissible evidence creating a genuine dispute about whether Trump "hand-picked" Trump University instructors as he claimed, that they had offered enough evidence to create a dispute about whether Trump was responsible for Trump University advertisements because he reviewed them personally, and that they had offered enough evidence to create a factual dispute about whether plaintiffs relied to their detriment on false representations for which Trump could be held responsible. The court granted Trump's motion to throw out claims for injunctive relief against him.

The end result was that the demands for damages stayed alive, but demands for injunctions — which really didn't drive the case — got thrown out.

What about summary judgment in the 2013 case?

It hasn't been decided yet. Trump didn't file his Motion for Summary Judgment until April 2016 and it's not even set for hearing until July 2016.

So does the summary judgment order suggest Judge Curiel is a partisan biased against Trump?


Look, in the modern political climate I could burn ten thousand words on this and people who support Trump wouldn't buy it and people who oppose Trump would buy it even if the only word was "dildo." But in my judgment, Judge Curiel's partial denial of the summary judgment is pretty straightforward and well within the range of normal federal judicial decisions on summary judgment.

First, keep in mind Judge Curiel hasn't given plaintiffs everything they wanted — not by a long shot. The point of a class action is to get your individual plaintiffs to represent a huge class of people, so you can prove their individual cases but get damages to cover hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people. It's a huge force multiplier and carries the potential for ruinously gigantic damages. Judge Curiel didn't certify the class on all the claims that plaintiffs wanted. That is, as to some of their claims, he said they could only seek their own personal damages, not damages on behalf of everyone who went to Trump University. For instance, he allowed the plaintiffs to represent classes under state consumer laws, but not under state common law claims like breach of contract and fraud.

Later, on Trump's motion, Judge Curiel decertified the class in part. That means that he granted Trump's motion to take away part of their class representative status and modified how they must prove their cases. Specifically, Judge Curiel ordered that (1) the case would have a separate trial on liability and then a separate trial on damages only if plaintiff prevailed (which defendants generally like because it keeps plaintiffs' damages sob stories out of trial and keeps the jury from being prejudiced by big damages numbers or by evidence of how much money the defendants have); (2) rather than assuming if plaintiffs won that all class members would get a full refund, Trump and Trump University would be able to litigate how much value they got and how much or little of a refund they should get.

On summary judgment, he gave the plaintiffs much of what they wanted — he knocked out the demands for injunctions, but those are insignificant compared to damages. But his analysis of the evidence was pretty straightforward. Judges aren't supposed to grant summary judgment if evidence is weak. They're only supposed to grant if if there's no dispute of fact. Here, the plaintiffs offered evidence which, if believed, would show that Trump was responsible for false statements and the students relied on those statements. I don't think it's a particularly notable decision.

Does that mean you think the plaintiffs should win?

I don't have an opinion on that.

It sure sounds like Trump University made false statements and promises. But from what I've seen, the best defense (though not necessarily the one that Trump will follow) is that anyone minimally rational would have recognized that all of the Trump University sales patter was puffery, trumpery, and bullshit, the equivalent of saying your coffee shop offers the most amazing coffee in the universe. But that's a jury question on these facts. Trump's gigantic successes in the Republican primaries demonstrates that many Americans may not share my view that most of what he says is obviously not to be taken seriously. Also, the RICO claim is rather clearly overcharged nonsense, like the vast majority of civil RICO claims. Congress needs to do something about RICO so it's not used as an exclamation point any time anyone sues for fraud. Judge Curiel may yet grant summary judgment on that second case — though Trump's motion in that case is curiously narrow.

So does the record support that Judge Curiel is in the tank for the plaintiffs and outrageously biased against Trump?

No. I don't think it does. However, to reach that conclusion, you need to actually read stuff and have a vague idea of what you're talking about, so I don't expect it to take hold, frankly.

FBI Actively Investigating Prenda Law Team For Fraud

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Minneapolis office is conducting an active investigation of the principals of Prenda Law, the notorious team of crooked copyright trolls that I've spilled so much e-ink over here.

Today I spoke with two sources who confirmed receiving a letter from the FBI inquiring about their experiencing with Prenda and seeking information about Prenda's activities. The letter — which I have reviewed — has been sent out on a large scale to attorneys who have represented targets of Prenda's litigation. Here's what the letter reveals:

  • The FBI is looking at the various entities Prenda Law used, including Steele Hansmeier PLLC, LW Systems, Livewire Holdings, AF Holdings, Ingenuity13, and Guava LLC.
  •  Though the letter does not name individual targets, the context makes clear that the FBI is investigating the principals of Prenda Law (with the exception of Paul Duffy, I suppose).
  • The FBI has devoted substantial resources to soliciting victim impact in a systematic way, and based on its questions about availability to testify is contemplating prosecution.
  • The FBI is focusing on "a fraudulent scheme known as 'trolling'" — which may indicate that the FBI has concluded that Prenda Law principals themselves uploaded their pornography to BitTorrent sites in order to sue people who downloaded it.

Based on my 21 years in the federal criminal justice system, I believe the letter reflects an active, determined investigation in its later stages.  The letter represents an abandonment of operational security and confidentiality; it suggests the FBI no longer sees a need for stealth.  That, in turn, suggests that the FBI believes it's already developed the evidence it needs to prove the substance of its case (that Team Prenda committed wire and/or mail fraud) and is just identifying as many victims as possible for potential witnesses and to establish the amount of damages.   Bear in mind that under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the more money wrongdoers made, the more time they're facing.

I'll report more as I learn more.  But as I often say — the wheels turn slowly, my friends. But they turn. Team Prenda needs federal criminal defense attorneys, and needs them right now.

Kosovo Deserves Digital Independence 

When I did my LLM in Italy, I got sat at the “Muslim Table” during a dinner. They plunked down three bottles of wine. I said “well, as long as you guys don’t mind me drinking here, I’ll be happy to be at the Muslim table.”

The guy next to me says "I can not allow an American to drink alone. May Allah forgive me.” Then we drank all the wine. Then we realized that we actually look a lot alike. Like creepily so. A long friendship was born.

He happened to be from Kosovo.

Well, anyhow, I was emailing with him, and noticed that his government email address ended in .com. I asked “what the hell is up with that?” He explained that ICANN wouldn’t give Kosovo its own ccTLD because they don't recognize it as a “real country.”

That grinds my gears.

Kosovo gained political independence, but it remains a digital vassal of its former master, Serbia. Despite Kosovo’s political independence, won through armed conflict and international diplomatic recognition, ICANN denies the new country its online independence by refusing to grant it control of its own top level domain.  ICANN’s refusal to do so does not seem to have any degree of intellectual honesty, but seems more rooted in political expediency and a desire to avoid offending Serbia (and thus by extension, Russia).  After a full exhaustive study of the legal and political issues, I published Kosovo’s Digital Independence: Time for Kosovo’s CCTLD.

In the article, I discuss the fact that this is not just a matter of national pride – although national pride should be a sufficient justification.  The real justification is that Kosovo deserves full digital independence.  A ccTLD is not merely a symbolic indicator of independence, however. Control over ccTLDs allows a nation to control an essential part of their information and technological infrastructure that can affect telecommunications, power grids, banking, and electronic surveillance. National governments recognize ccTLDs as a component of their sovereignty and a vital national interest.

Kosovo broke most other technological ties with Serbia. For example, Kosovo and Serbia agreed that Austria could apply on behalf of Kosovo for an international country calling code as part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement.  Up until 1999, Kosovo was covered by the Serbian cell phone network and used the +63 dialing code.   Without its own dialing code but with a need to distance itself from Serbian control, Kosovo could use the old Yugoslavian +381 code or could “borrow” a code from another country.   In 1999, Kosovo began using Monaco’s +377 code.   The Kosovo government essentially regards +63 as illegal since 2008 and kicked out most of the Serbian cell network.

As for its ccTLD designation, Kosovo cannot get out from under Serbia’s thumb so easily.  Kosovo continues to remain under Serbia’s ccTLD, even if as a practical matter Kosovo refuses to use it. Kosovo government websites are all on other TLDs, usually “.com” “.net” or “.org.”  While this is superior to using a hostile foreign government’s ccTLD, it places these TLDs at least partially under the laws of the United States, as they are privately administered by Verisign52 and Public Interest Registry.   Legally, if someone wanted to take action against these domains, they could do so in the Eastern District of Virginia, even though American courts would normally have no place meddling in the affairs of any other independent nation.

Ultimately, this renders Kosovo as an online anomaly. It violently broke free from Serbia, and no reasonable observer can likely see it ever returning to Serbian rule.  Since its official ccTLD remains .rs (Serbia) its online presence is still under the Serb National Internet Domain Registry.  To evade the censorship and cybersecurity issues that would arise from using “.rs,” Kosovo places its online flag in Virginia. Given the revelations of what the U.S. government and U.S. corporations consider to be fair game when it comes to surveillance and the commercial and governmental use of personal information, one might imagine that this is an inappropriate state of affairs for a self-respecting independent country.

While ICANN refuses to give Kosovo a TLD, it lacks any justifiable reason.  Is it controversial?  Of course it is.  But is it any more controversial than granting the Palestinian State its own TLD?  The Soviet Union fell decades ago, but Lenin's old empire remains active online under .su.  East Timor, before and after independence, had its own “.tp” and then “.tl.”  And, most analogously, Taiwan is at .tw, despite being recognized by fewer nations than Kosovo and both it and China continuing to maintain that it is not actually “independent.”  Finally, even insignificant specks of land like Saint Helena Island and Pitcairn Island have complete digital independence, while ICANN refuses to give it to Kosovo.

As Kosovo’s recognition as an independent state grows, Kosovo still has to struggle to fully escape Serbia’s orbit. The Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations provides that as a matter of international law, “it is a bedrock principle that every state ‘has the right freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems.’”  The international and technological communities have the ability to help Kosovo along this path to full digital independence—or to at least get out of the way. Kosovo’s full and complete independence requires that it have its own country code top-level domain.

ICANN could easily remedy the situation by granting a ccTLD to Kosovo as it has done for many countries (and for a number of less- than countries) in the past. ICANN relies on its general practice of using ISO 3166-1 country codes to refute any discussion of granting Kosovo its own ccTLD, although it has also made clear that this practice is not its official standard.  Support from 111 of the UN members and the United States’ backing of Kosovo make it inexplicable that Kosovo remains without its own ccTLD.  Kosovo gained its territorial independence through armed struggle and international recognition. Objections to its independence lack intellectually honest justification, and its digital independence should not be held hostage by old Balkan rivalries. The time has come for Kosovo to be given a full seat at the Internet, international, and independence tables.

The full study of this issue can be found at Kosovo's Digital Independence: Time for Kosovo's CCTLD, Wisconsin Int’l Law Journal, I hope you'll enjoy reading it.