Sept. 4 1992—Recognizing that “only exceptional circumstances amounting to a judicial usurpation of power will justify the invocation of [the] extraordinary remedy” of a writ of mandamus (internal quotation marks omitted), the Third Circuit finds (in Haines v. Liggett) that New Jersey federal district judge (and This Week all-star) H. Lee Sarokin has created such exceptional circumstances. Ruling on a pre-trial discovery motion in a personal injury action against cigarette manufacturers, Sarokin had declared that “the tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation” and had charged that its members “knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits and … believe that illness and death of consumers is an appropriate cost of their own prosperity!” (Exclamation point in original.) Relying on his “own familiarity with the evidence” adduced in a different case, Sarokin had ruled that the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applies and ordered the requested documents produced. Undermining defendants’ opportunity to appeal his ruling, he had quoted extensively from the very documents as to which privilege had been asserted.
The Third Circuit, in an opinion by LBJ appointee Ruggero Aldisert, not only vacates Sarokin’s discovery order but also takes the extraordinary step of removing Sarokin from the case. The Third Circuit lambastes Sarokin for violating “fundamental concepts of due process,” for divulging the contents of assertedly privileged documents before avenues of appeal had been exhausted (“We should not again encounter a casualty of this sort”), and for destroying any appearance of impartiality.
When President Clinton nominates Sarokin to the Third Circuit in 1994, Senator Patrick Leahy—the lead obstructer of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees—displays his usual denial of reality as he lauds Sarokin as “a judge of proven competence, temperament, and fairness” and “an excellent choice.”
Sept. 5 2001—In what the dissenting judge describes as “a seminal case in more ways than one,” a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit—with, surprise!, Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority—rules that a prisoner serving a life term has a federal constitutional right to procreate that encompasses (absent the prison’s showing countervailing penological interests) the right to mail his semen from prison so that his wife can be artificially inseminated. An en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit later reverses that ruling by a 6-5 vote.
Sept. 9 1993—Missouri 17-year-old Christopher Simmons plans a brutal murder and assures his friends that they can “get away with it” because they are minors. In the middle of the night, Simmons and a friend break into the home of Shirley Crook, awaken her, cover her eyes and mouth with duct tape, bind her hands, put her in her minivan, drive to a state park, walk her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec river, tie her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrap her whole face in duct tape, and throw her from the bridge. Exactly as Simmons plans, Mrs. Crook drowns an unspeakably cruel death in the waters below.
Simmons confesses to the murder. At the death-penalty phase of his trial, the judge instructs the jurors that they can consider Simmons’ age as a mitigating factor, and the defense relies heavily on that factor. The jury recommends, and the trial judge imposes, the death penalty.
A dozen years after Simmons’s summary execution of Mrs. Crook, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, relies on “international opinion” to overturn its own precedent and to rule (in Roper v. Simmons) that execution of offenders who were 17 at the time of their offense violates the Eighth Amendment. (See This Week for Mar. 1, 2005.) In dissent, Justice Scalia observes that the majority’s “startling conclusion” that “juries cannot be trusted with the delicate task of weighing a defendant’s youth along with the other mitigating and aggravating factors of his crime … undermines the very foundations of our capital sentencing system, which entrusts juries with ‘mak[ing] the difficult and uniquely human judgments that defy codification and that ‘buil[d] discretion, equity, and flexibility into a legal system.’”
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.