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Monday, September 17, 2007

ACLU files silly brief in support of Craig's plea withdrawal

After I'd just graduated from Texas Law School, but before taking the bar exam and starting my judicial clerkship, I spent most of the summer of 1980 working in New York City for Sullivan & Cromwell. The firm helped its "summer associates" (a/k/a law clerks) locate housing, and for half of my stay I was very fortunate indeed to be permitted to apartment-sit, rent-free, for one of the firm's litigation associates whose husband's position at Columbia entitled him to a fabulous pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive at about 118th or so, with a wonderful view over the park and the river. I only briefly met the associate as she was leaving for her own summer vacation. But anyone doing any apartment-sitting can't help but feel as if he's gotten to know the regular occupants a little bit, if only from seeing what take-out food menus were on the fridge door and what magazines came in the mail.

As it turned out, the young S&C associate, Nadine Strossen, left the firm not too long afterwards, and since 1991 she's been the president of the American Civil Liberties Union. And my lingering gratitude to Ms. Strossen, along with the vague feeling of unshared intimacy that I had as a long-term guest in her home (but without her present), has probably made me less skeptical than I otherwise would have been of much of the ACLU's activities. Some of them, from time to time, I've even agreed with, and doubtless would have done so whether I'd known Ms. Strossen or not. But far more often, I've thought that the ACLU's causes were ill-advised and naïve, albeit at least mostly well intentioned.

And such is this amicus brief that the ACLU has now filed in support of Sen. Larry Craig's pending motion to withdraw his guilty plea. (H/t Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft.) Even if I were to accept all of its legal arguments as being correct and fairly stated (and I don't; many of them are badly overblown and over-simplified to the point of being misleading), I'd still conclude that it's a profoundly silly brief that is very unlikely to have any effect on those proceedings, for at least two reasons.


First, all of its arguments go to the "as applied" constitutionality of the Minnesota disorderly conduct criminal statute to which Craig pleaded guilty. There is no doubt, and the brief properly concedes, that the statute may be constitutionally applied in at least some cases. But arguments of this sort have to be made by the defendant before he pleads guilty. They're waived, along with all of his other potential factual and legal defenses, when he pleads guilty. And they do nothing to show that his guilty plea should be permitted to be withdrawn now, because they have nothing to do with the voluntary, informed, or knowing quality of his waiver of rights when he entered the guilty plea. The brief makes a truly pathetic attempt to sidestep this in its next-to-last paragraph:

The record shows there is a very significant possibility this defendant pled guilty on the basis of conduct that could not constitutionally have been the basis for a conviction. Given that very real possibility, the interests of justice would best be served by allowing him to withdraw his plea so that the Court can determine if a constitutional prosecution was possible at all here, and if so, whether the defendant could constitutionally be convicted.

Beware the brief whose best and most specific argument for its own relevance is that it will serve "the interests of justice." Often, as here, that's code for: "To reach these arguments, you have to ignore all the ordinary rules." There's no reason to think that the judge who hears Sen. Craig's motion will do that.

The brief could have argued, but didn't, that the plea should be set aside unless there is an affirmative showing in the record of a basis in fact for his plea — and that's true, as far as it goes. But in accepting a plea agreement, a court need not — indeed, ought not — go out of its way to figure out and raise on the pleading defendant's part every potential factual or legal defense that he might have asserted. In particular, courts accepting guilty pleas aren't required to independently re-validate the statute that created the crime to which the defendant is pleading guilty. The allegations from the sworn complaint that Craig stared into the officer's stall, then intruded his hand and foot into the officer's stall, by themselves are sufficient to meet the "basis in fact" requirement. (Indeed, even if that conduct was intended as speech, it would be enough to qualify for the "fighting words" exception to the First Amendment protections argued by the ACLU's brief: Staring and then physically intruding one's hands or feet into someone's bathroom stall is indeed a good way to start a brawl, regardless of whether it was specifically interpreted as part of a homosexual "cruising" code or was instead simply interpreted as intrusive upon reasonable privacy expectations.)


Second, all of the ACLU's arguments presume that Craig was arrested and prosecuted for speech, or for conduct that amounts to speech. Its entire premise is that Craig was soliciting sex, and its resulting argument from that premise is that soliciting sex can't be prosecuted as disorderly conduct without violating First Amendment protections for free speech. But Sen. Craig emphatically denies that he was soliciting sex, or engaged in any other kind of expressive conduct that amounts to "speech."

To the contrary, he insists that he was peering into Sgt. Karsnia's stall only to see whether it was vacant yet, and that his foot tapping was meaningless fidgeting (rather than a code), and that his intrusion of his foot into the officer's stall was accidental (due to his "wide stance"), and that his reaching beneath the barrier between the stalls was intended to pick up a piece of paper (rather than send hand signals). A defendant simply can't simultaneously claim to have been engaged in protected speech under the First Amendment while denying that he intended to do any communicating. And as much as it may want to be one of the trial court's chums via this amicus brief, the ACLU can't claim that on Craig's behalf when it's contrary to Craig's own position.

Bottom line: There's no need for anyone to get outraged over the ACLU's position in this case. It's just silly and irrelevant, and therefore harmless. And I think I can say that without feeling at all ungrateful for the use of Ms. Strossen's marvelous apartment twenty-seven years ago.


Previous posts on the Craig matter, oldest to most recent:

  1. The answer to the "Why was this a crime?" crowd on the Craig matter
  2. Craig "reconsidering" resignation; and his chance to withdraw his guilty plea is probably better than Beldar first presumed
  3. Has Larry Craig hired the part-time prosecutor who filed the complaint against him?
  4. Craig swears that on the date of his arrest, he "decided to seek a guilty plea to whatever charge would be lodged" against him
  5. In letter forwarding proposed plea, prosecutor Renz repeatedly reminded Craig of his right to counsel and warned that plea would result in "a conviction for Disorderly Conduct appearing on [his] criminal record"

Posted by Beldar at 09:48 PM in Law (2007), Politics (2007), Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to ACLU files silly brief in support of Craig's plea withdrawal and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Prosecution moves to strike ACLU amicus brief supporting Craig's motion to withdraw guilty plea from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Sep 21, 2007 6:41:40 PM

» Of pleas and piñatas: No surprises in prosecution's response to Craig's motion to withdraw guilty plea from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Sep 24, 2007 9:03:42 PM

» Craig plans to ditch hearing, but Renz should object to his affidavit as hearsay and force Craig to take the stand from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Sep 25, 2007 6:05:42 PM

» Just "one procedural question" for prosecutor Renz as he opposed Sen. Craig's motion to withdraw his guilty plea from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Sep 28, 2007 6:26:42 AM

» Is Craig's strategy "winning by losing," counting on colleagues and constituents to confuse "innocent until proven guilty" with "guilty (but pending further appeals)"? from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Oct 1, 2007 11:08:13 PM

» Minnesota trial court rejects Craig's motion to withdraw guilty plea from BeldarBlog

Tracked on Oct 4, 2007 3:27:43 PM


(1) David Ehrenstein made the following comment | Sep 18, 2007 7:23:47 AM | Permalink

What's truly hilairious is the brief puts Crag's soto voce signalling on the same level as the sort of straightforward proposition that might be made in over and above board conversation (ie. "Let's go back to my place.") Making such a proposition is anathema to the likes of Craig.

(2) mrobvious made the following comment | Sep 18, 2007 4:59:05 PM | Permalink

Watching the ACLU spokesman discussing the brief this morning, I could not help but feel that the goal isn't to help Craig, but rather to stick a knife or two in him. Thus, the characterizing of his actions as speech when he explicitly denies same. Even if he wins the appeal, he is stuck with the gay solicitation meme.

(3) EW1(SG) made the following comment | Sep 19, 2007 9:51:45 AM | Permalink

...even if that conduct was intended as speech, it would be enough to qualify for the "fighting words" exception...

I wondered about that, as a brawl would certainly result if someone perpetrated such behavior agin' me in a similar situation.

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