The Flynn Court Drifts Dangerously Outside Judicial Navigational Beacons

Der Untergang der TitanicBelow is my column in USA Today on concerns over the recent orders of U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan. As leading lawyers, including a former Clinton U.S. Attorney openly advise Sullivan on how to “make trouble” for the Administration, these calls only magnify concerns over the purpose of these proceedings and whether they are increasingly detached from the merits of the pending motion. While many seem to relish the improvisational element, they risk undermining the judicial element of the proceedings. Flynn’s team has sought the removal of Sullivan (a very difficult proposition, particularly in the D.C. Circuit).  The intense opposition in the bar and teaching academy to Trump seems again to have greatly distorted the legal analysis, which fails to address the most troubling aspects of these orders.  As I have previously acknowledged, there are good-faith arguments to be made but much of the analysis has ignored the strong precedent against a denial of the motion and rarely even acknowledge the serious implications for the rights of defendants in such action. I address some of the countervailing (and in my view controlling) authority in a separate posting.

Notably, the D.C. Circuit gave Judge Sullivan ten days to respond to the motion seeking his removal. Thus, these issues will presumably be addressed by Judge Sullivan before any hearing is held.

Here is the column:

The case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn is rapidly moving from the dubious to the preposterous. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan is being widely applauded for resisting the dismissal of a case that the Department of Justice insists cannot be ethically maintained. 

Faced with no dispute between the parties, Sullivan decided to create a contested case by inviting in third parties to create a conflict and now is suggesting that he may substitute his own criminal charge rather than let Flynn walk free. In the past, I have publicly praised Sullivan. However, this is fast becoming a case of gross judicial overreach as the court appears to assume both judicial and executive powers. Sullivan can disagree with the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, but he cannot substitute his own judgment for it.

“At the appropriate time, the court will enter a scheduling order governing the submission of any amicus curiae briefs,” Sullivan wrote. Never has a more innocuous line left a more ominous meaning. After that order, the judge proceeded to appoint retired Judge John Gleeson to argue against dismissal in the absence of a dispute between the parties. He is effectively outsourcing the argument to introduce a dispute. This move is nothing to celebrate.

A punishment by plebiscite

Amicus briefs are allowed by courts when outside parties want to be heard on some contested issue facing a court. Such filings are common in civil cases. This, however, is a criminal case. There are serious questions about the propriety of such third parties being asked to brief uncontested motions in a criminal case. The lives and liberty of individuals generally are protected from public demands for punishment. We do not do punishment by plebiscite in this country.

While courts have discretion to grant amicus or third-party arguments in civil cases, there is no counterpart under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. In fact, Judge Sullivan rejected such a request on Dec. 20, 2017, stating that “the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure do not provide for intervention by third parties in criminal cases. … Options exist for a private citizen to express his views about matters of public interest, but the court’s docket is not an available option.”

Sullivan’s earlier order was the correct one. It is dangerous to open up criminal cases for citizens to argue for convictions or enhanced punishments, particularly when prosecutors seek dismissal in light of prosecutorial error or abuse.

Indeed, former President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, warned Congress against courts intruding on Justice Department decisions, stressing that “our Founders believed that the enormity of the prosecutorial power — and all the decisions about who, what, and whether to prosecute — should be vested in one who is responsible to the people.”

That is particularly the case where the motion benefits a criminal defendant. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any basis that Sullivan could deny this motion without facing a rapid reversal.

However, the Flynn case has proved to be the defining temptation for many in discarding constitutional protections and values in their crusade against President Donald Trump. Experts are asking a court to consider sending a man to prison after the Justice Department concluded it can no longer stand behind his prosecution. Under this same logic, any defendant could face public outrage over an unopposed motion to dismiss, and a court could invite third parties to make arguments against him. Rather than protecting an unpopular criminal defendant from those outside clamoring for his head, the court is inviting them inside to replace the prosecutors.

Judges are not prosecutors

If Sullivan’s invitation for third parties to argue in a criminal case is unnerving, his suggestion that he might substitute a perjury charge is positively terrifying. Sullivan has compounded this judicial overreach by asking Gleeson to explore the issue, despite his public criticism of the administration’s handling of the Flynn case.  

Under Sullivan’s theory, any time a defendant seeks such a dismissal (even with the support of the prosecutors) he could face a judicially mandated perjury charge. Faced with evidence of prosecutorial wrongdoing (which often arises after a trial), defense counsel (like myself) would have to warn clients that the court might just swap one crime for another. 

The chilling implications of such a theory are being brushed aside by those eager to see Sullivan mete out his own form of justice. However, such an unsustainable decision would quickly careen out of control. 

Consider the scenario. Sullivan knows that such a charge would not be prosecuted by the Justice Department. However, Criminal Procedure Rule 42 states that such cases are to be prosecuted by the government, but “if the government declines the request, the court must appoint another attorney to prosecute the contempt.” 

So what is Sullivan going to do? He cannot force the Justice Department to prosecute a case that it considers to be unethical. He would have to enlist his own outside prosecutor after creating his own dispute with outside parties. If Flynn is convicted, Sullivan will have to order the Bureau of Prisons to incarcerate someone who was convicted by judicial design.

Sullivan Record Remains Controversial In The Case

Ironically, Sullivan is largely responsible for the current posture of the case. Flynn was supposed to be sentenced in December 2018 before the hearing took a bizarre turn. Using the flag in the courtroom as a prop, Sullivan incorrectly accused Flynn of being “an unregistered agent of a foreign country while serving as the national security adviser to the president of the United States. Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out.” He then questioned whether Flynn should have been charged with treason.

Flynn faced a relatively minor single count of false statements with the likelihood of no jail time — but Sullivan was suggesting that he could have been charged with treason, subject to the death penalty.

Sullivan then gave Flynn a menacing choice: “I cannot assure you that if you proceed today, you will not receive a sentence of incarceration. … I’m not hiding my disgust, my disdain.”

Flynn, unsurprisingly, opted to wait. Had Sullivan simply sentenced him, Flynn would have been formally convicted and sentenced — making any later motion more difficult while the case was on appeal.

Fortunately, while H. L. Mencken once described a judge as “a law student who marks his own examination papers,” our system allows for appellate review, and few judges would give such decisions a passing grade. The fact is, such a judicially constructed case would be effectively dead before it could be properly captioned for docketing. The problem is that Flynn would be left twisting in the wind as others use his case to make extraneous points.

I previously discussed how Michael Flynn has the curse of being useful. He was useful to investigate for officials like FBI special agent Peter Strzok, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former FBI Director James Comey, though investigators found no underlying criminal conduct. He was useful to special counsel Robert Mueller, even though the same investigators apparently did not believe he intentionally lied to them. He now is useful to a court that seems intent on staging a criminal case of its own making.

Of course, at some point, when Flynn stops being so useful, justice might be served with the dismissal of this abusive case.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

58 thoughts on “The Flynn Court Drifts Dangerously Outside Judicial Navigational Beacons”

  1. The flaw in your reasoning is that you don’t address the REASON why the government decided to try to reverse the conviction of Flynn and the implications for national security. Flynn admitted to lying to the FBI and entered into a plea agreement to drop other felonies related to his failure to register as a paid agent for Turkey. The REASON Billy Barr wants to try to reverse the conviction is not for reasons of justice–it is for political reasons. Judge Sullivan is NOT required by law to grant this motion. Rather, he is duty-bound to administer justice, which includes not ignoring the fact that Trump, the most-unfit and unethical person ever to occupy the White House, wants to avoid pardoning Flynn right before an election. Then, there’s the simple indisputable fact that Billy Barr is Trump’s fixer–not the top US law enforcement official, proven not just by the Flynn matter, but his lying to the American people in advance of release of the Mueller Report.

    Then, there’s the substance and context of Flynn’s lies. The Obama Administration put sanctions in place to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, so Flynn communicates with the Russian ambassador that he’s going to take care of this little problem for them. This is before Trump even took office. Quoting Barbara McQuade: we have only one POTUS at a time. Flynn knew what he did was wrong, so he lied about it Now, chubby Billy Barr, former grade school bully, is trying to make the case that some bad conduct by Democratic-leaning FBI agents is the real sin here–not Flynn trying to countermand US foreign policy behind the back of the sitting President at the time, who was Barak Obama, by promising he’d take care of the little sanctions problem.

    Yes, these proceedings are irregular. So is the unlawful occupancy of the White House by Trump–unlawful because it was procured by cheating. Turley notes that those in academia are opposed to Trump, implying that this is based on bias–the “age of rage”, but Turley doesn’t acknowledge the reasons why educated persons find Trump odious–simply put, in addition to cheating his way into the White House, he is outrageously unfit for the title and has been a spectacular failure–the robust economy he inherited is trashed, the mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in unnecessary illness and death, and Americans, peacefully protesting racial murder by police were tear-gassed to clear the way for Trump to pose in front of a church holding a Bible. Turley’s rant today shades Judge Sullivan for using the US flag as a prop. How ironic. There is a US flag in every court, from small claims courts to the SCOTUS. Turley claims that opposition to Trump is distorting the legal reasoning, but the reverse is true–how could any sentient patriot who took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, do anything other than oppose Trump?

    Flynn is NO victim here, either, and he isn’t being abused.

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