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Soft On Crime: The Governor’s Indictment Thrown Out

The blaring above-the-fold headline in many Texas papers today (February 25, 2016) describes how the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined that former Governor Rick Perry committed no crime when he used his government position to coerce local law enforcement into shutting down hundreds of pending criminal investigations into official misconduct.

His defense team did a masterful job of convincing the public generally that he was being prosecuted for having exercised his constitutional authority to veto line-item budget appropriations, when in fact the criminal charges against him had absolutely nothing to do with the actual act of vetoing a legislative appropriation.

I’ve written about this before. The crime wasn’t the veto. The crime was the coercive threat. It is a crime to abuse public authority, using threats to suborn criminal investigations and thereby attempt to induce a public official to act against their own and the public’s best interests.

Here’s some relevant coverage:

https://www.texastribune.org/2016/02/24/texas-high-court-dismisses-rick-perry-indictments/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/02/24/charges-against-rick-perry-dismissed-by-texas-high-court-on-constitutional-grounds/

More significant than the outcome is the decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals (influenced by amicus briefing on First Amendment free-speech issues provided by Eugene Volokh and others) that the coercion statute (Texas Penal Code Section 36.03) itself is overbroad as written, and therefore unconstitutional. Here’s a copy of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision in .pdf format: Ex Parte Perry, No. PD-1067-15, Texas Crim. App. (February 24, 2016).

It is a tricky, difficult thing to successfully draft a criminal statute that addresses communication. If someone foments armed revolution, are they committing a crime, or are they just behaving like an average Twitter account holder?

If someone passes a note to a bank teller that reads, “This is a hold-up,” is that someone robbing the bank, or are they just complaining about how long they’ve been waiting in line? Sure, that someone’s wearing a ski mask, but it’s cold outside. And they’re carrying a gun, but maybe that’s just to celebrate their Second Amendment open-carry rights.

I believe the coercion statute was constitutional — it  had a chilling effect only on public expression to the extent that it criminalized credible abuses of office. The statute didn’t prohibit a public official from expressing an opinion, making a case, or shouting from the rooftops. It prohibited a public official possessing the actual capacity to abuse office from holding the public hostage with the threat to exercise that capacity.

 

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Gentle Criticism of the Day: Has Everybody Come Down With a Case of the Stupids?

Hmm. That may have come across as a little harsh. There are three topics in particular that seem to have distracted a number of otherwise-intelligent political correspondents. To say that they have all gotten a case of the stupids is not particularly fair, but what can I say? I’m feeling a little crabby lately.

1. The Ivory Tower Comes To Perry’s Defense! Or With Enemies Like These, Who Needs Friends?

Okay, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as Governor Perry’s criminal defense attorneys negotiated with various parties to put together their bipartisan dream team of constitutional law scholars who jointly wrote to decry Perry’s criminal indictment for misuse of his office.

The secret ingredient for assembling this coalition was convincing a bunch of law professors that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was indicting Perry because he had exercised his authority to veto legislation; that effort was likely aided by the flurry of national news stories all reporting that Perry was being indicted because he had vetoed a budget item.

“Mon dieu!” the professors all said, absolutely aghast that anyone would be so, … so, … barbaric as to actually criminalize a gubernatorial veto. “That’s terrible! What an abuse of the criminal process, to dare to criminalize the very instruments of government! To inform a sitting Governor that the mere act of vetoing legislation is illegal! Outrage! Despair! Ennui!”

Sigh. If these towering geniuses of constitutional law had actually bothered to do the class readings, they would have discovered that the criminal charges against Perry are not based on the fact that he vetoed state funds for the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

The criminal charges against Perry are based on the fact that Perry used threats in an effort to intimidate the Travis County D.A. and suborn a number of criminal investigations, including pending investigations of Perry’s own government. That the threats were actually followed up by a veto is more or less irrelevant to the criminal act itself. In fact, if Perry had just quietly vetoed the funding without having engaged in snaky bits of quid-pro-quo threats, no charges would have been filed.

See the difference?

It’s subtle, I know, but I’m confident that with the help of careful tutoring and some time hitting the books, even the slowest constitutional law expert can be guided to the correct answer.

But really, people. Don’t raise your hand in class if you haven’t bothered to brief the case.

2. Dark Money Isn’t That Bad, Right? Right?

Sometimes, statistical analysis can be used to justify genuinely odd theories. In particular, Alan Abramowitz, a clever, clever analyst for “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” blog at the Center for Politics website did a regression analysis of the correlation between the disparity in dark money for U.S. Senate races with the outcome of those races in support of the argument that campaign spending didn’t “buy” the election for the Republicans. Except …, the study’s author forget that when you add two apples and three oranges, the answer is not five apples.

The gist of the argument is that differential spending levels, in and of themselves, could only be seen to predict or track election outcomes with a correlation of .23 (i.e., if one were predicting outcomes solely based on campaign spending differentials, one would get the right answer only one time out of five), while incumbency of a Democratic Party candidate was an accurate predictor with a correlation of .76 (i.e., if one were predicting outcomes solely based on whether an election involved a Democratic incumbent running against a non-incumbent challenger, one would get the right answer nearly three times out of four).

Can you spot the error?

The error is one of false equivalency, and of a failure to control for hidden correlations between dark money spending and the encouragement of conservative challengers to Democratic incumbents. In other words, the clever, clever study has proceeded on the assumption that the victories against Democratic Party incumbent candidates were not in any way the result of dark money donations that roused otherwise restive conservative challengers to those Democratic Party candidates.

What was the mistake? The error lay in failing to identify a control sample wherein Democratic Party candidates lost their elections when no dark money whatsoever had influenced competition for the office. Instead, we could just as validly conclude from this superficial analysis that a tidal wave of conservative dark money swept all liberals before it.

The study ultimately only confirms a tautology, that all other things being equal, Democratic Party incumbents got absolutely shellacked in the November 2014 election. Well, duh.

The only interesting result of the study is that it suggests that conservative dark money might have been spent more efficiently than liberal dark money (i.e., that in terms of absolute spending levels, conservative candidates with smaller war chests than their liberal opponents did comparatively better than one would predict, based solely on the proportionate difference in funding between any two candidates, and that the size of the war chests wasn’t what determined victory).

What I want to know is the answer to a simpler question. In particular races, did the existence of a dark money source (of any amount) sway the outcome of the election? But that’s a harder question to answer, because the person creating such a study actually has to go out and discover not only how much money a campaign raised, but also the specific tactical uses to which that money was put.

Therefore, I don’t think my assertion that the election was bought and paid for by conservative dark money has been refuted, at least not by this study.

3. Aw, Picture I.D. Laws Ain’t That Bad, Right?

I’m a little troubled that Professor Hasen seems to have been involuntarily enlisted by the right in support of this argument. Among certain writers who are striving to appear thoughtful and even-handed about the 2014 election, there is a trend to argue that (1) restrictive new voting laws energized turnout among minorities, and that (2) ultimately, one cannot show that the historically poor turnout in the 2014 election had anything to do with voter I.D. laws, so therefore it must be the case that the new laws aren’t as bad as everyone has made them out to be.

Note that Professor Hasen wasn’t saying that voters weren’t suppressed, but merely that Wendy Weiser’s off-the-cuff remarks about the North Carolina races in 2014 didn’t offer clear evidence of voter suppression. His call for greater rigor in statistical analysis isn’t the same thing as an endorsement of the view that voter I.D. laws are hunky-dory.

Such displays of intellectual gymnastics are truly thrilling. To leap and bend and twist in such a way as to refute all meaning, and then wait for the thunderous applause of a grateful nation. “Oh thank you! We thought these new laws were not only bad, but damaging. You’ve shown us that they are merely bad, but that they haven’t caused any harm. What were we worried about?”

Sigh. Again. Sigh.

Okay, here’s some intellectual subtlety to wrap your noggin around, geniuses. A bad voter I.D. law (such as the bad voter I.D. law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011) can simultaneously do two things in an election. It can (1) terrify politically aware and savvy minority voters and drive those voters to the polls, (2) actually function to effectively bar eligible voters from casting a valid vote, and (3) suppress turnout by discouraging voters from participating in the election.

Um. How can someone simultaneously acknowledge that turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest in any national election in living memory, while also asserting that the effects of voter suppression (including new voter I.D. laws) had no measurable effect on voter participation? C’mon, people.

I’ll grant you that the “science” of “political science” is a bit grandiose, given the inability to test certain causal hypotheses about historical events. But isn’t it just a tiny bit possible that improvements in relative minority turnout (i.e., that among a shrunken number of November 2014 voters, a relatively larger percentage of those voters were minority voters than in prior elections) could go hand in hand with successful large-scale vote suppressions that curbed turnout?

Until someone comes up with an argument based on actual scholarship, rather than just a “gut feeling” that the Brennan Center’s own studies of the suppressive effects of voting restrictions on the poor, the elderly, the young, and minority voters are somehow flawed, I’ll trust in the argument that laws designed to make it harder to vote can actually accomplish their intended goal, and make it harder to vote. I’ll further assume that because it was harder to vote in the November 2014 election, fewer people cast votes in the November 2014 election than would otherwise have done so in the absence of laws making it harder to vote.

I mean, people, please. Use your god-given brains for a second.

Herd Mentality and Media Response to the Perry Indictment

When the national trend seems to be that of raised eyebrows and tut-tuts about Governor Perry being an accused felon, I’m as much at fault for following that trend as anyone. In rebuttal to the generally pessimistic view of the efficacy of criminal charges against Perry, Charles Kuffner, the Texas Tribune, and others have offered more nuanced and balanced coverage of this story than what is being provided by the media at large. See, e.g., http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=62320 and http://www.texastribune.org/2014/08/19/group-behind-perry-indictment-previously-pursued-d/.

As Mr. Kuffner points out, in order to accurately report on this story, one must bear in mind that the original criminal complaint against Perry was filed before there was any veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County D.A.’s office.

I can understand why disreputable “experts” such as the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal and Breitbart are insistent on presenting this story as one about a poor, beleaguered Texas Governor being unfairly abused just because he vetoed something. The focus of Perry’s defenders is all on the undisputed authority of the Governor to veto bills. The veto itself is irrelevant. The important thing isn’t the veto, its the brass-knuckles and arm-twisting that Governor Perry engaged in prior to the veto that is the thing to focus on.

The State isn’t complaining that it was victimized by the veto. The State argues that it was victimized by the Governor’s bloody-toothed threat against the continued maintenance of public order and the legal welfare of its citizens. That’s where the criminal outrage occurred.

Unlike the Governor’s most ardent supporters, legal experts like Professor Rick Hasen aren’t making the mistake of focusing all their attention on the veto. Instead, they (and by reflection, me) are tending to criticize the Governor’s indictment on technical grounds, arguing that notwithstanding the Governor’s obvious bullying, such bullying is not necessarily criminal. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/08/the_perry_indictment_is_one_more_example_of_criminalizing_politics_watch.html

So (to engage in a little hyperbole), why are all these law professors giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Professor Hasen goes so far as to imply that many ethics-related criminal investigations are infirm, and he makes use of a phrase that has suddenly become very popular among a certain set of talking heads by decrying the “criminalization of politics.”

That’s a catchy phrase that belies a somewhat facile argument, given that politicians can and sometimes do actually commit crimes. And no one in Texas would be particularly shocked or surprised if in the end it turned out that Perry had committed crimes, given that many of us strongly suspect that he’s been playing things pretty fast and loose for as long as he’s been in politics. I suspect Rick Hasen’s underlying fear isn’t that Perry is innocent, but that conservatives might take advantage of any legal misstep on the part of the special prosecutor to justify launching an all-out retaliatory nuclear strike of criminal charges against liberal politicians.

The problems that I’m having as a reader of Texas criminal statutes is that I’m worried that the Texas Legislature has kept the door open to the commission of political crimes by failing to adequately address such criminal acts with effective laws.

It’s not that I think Perry is innocent, but that I’m afraid he might be taking advantage of loopholes in Section 39.02 of the Texas Penal Code that are wide enough to allow no end of truly reprehensible criminal acts to be conducted without consequence.

As a parting thought, here’s a hypothetical situation to consider if you are having trouble imagining any circumstance in which the threat of a veto might be a criminal act.

Suppose a Governor had spent a fair amount of time building and promoting the transfer of taxpayer money from the State Treasury to various trust accounts, knowing that those trust accounts were designed in such a way as to discourage public oversight and facilitate the funneling of money to private interests for the benefit of the Governor and his or her friends. For the sake of the scenario, call one of these funds the “XYZ Fund.”

In other words, assume for the sake of argument that the Governor had engaged in straight up simple theft, a plain-old regular everyday sort of crime no different in nature than a purse snatching, a smash and grab or a burglary, except on a much larger scale.

Now suppose that after years of dogged legwork, criminal prosecutors had started to put the pieces together, tracing through all the shell corporations and dummy accounts, figuring out where hundreds of millions of dollars of the State’s money that had been “lost” actually ended up.

Assume for the sake of argument that the Governor in question began to have a dawning awareness that his or her tracks hadn’t been covered perfectly, and that the game of cops and robbers was drawing to a close. Further assume that fortuitously, and at about the same time as the criminal investigation was going on, the nominal or titular supervisor of the agency conducting the criminal investigation was arrested while very, very drunk, and was videotaped while being embarrassingly belligerent.

Assume in this scenario that the Governor then placed a few phone calls to the people conducting the criminal investigation, in which he or she said, “You need to shut down your ongoing investigation of the XYZ Fund, or I will shut you down.”

Most criminals who fear being caught don’t have the luxury of actually possessing any leverage over the investigators pursuing them. But the Governor occupies an unusual position, one in which it actually is possible to strong-arm law enforcement by threatening to withhold funding.

I don’t share Professor Hasen’s fear that the criminal prosecution of political acts is fraught with problems associated with the separation of powers among the judicial and executive branches of government, or that the prosecution of statements made by officials acting in the course and scope of their duties raises insurmountable First Amendment free speech concerns.

I agree that the structural constitutional and legal problems of criminal prosecution can sometimes run afoul of other important political doctrines in the abstract, but context counts for everything. I (and anyone with an imagination, really) can construct scenarios in which the whispered threat of a veto isn’t an official act, but a private and wholly illegal extortion.

 

 

 

Taking the Long View on the Governor’s Indictment

One way to stir up excitement and interest in public law is to get a grand jury indictment of a sitting Texas Governor – it’s the sort of thing that happens every 97 years or so, and it certainly gets people’s attention. And one cannot help but enjoy a bit of schadenfreude when the target of such an indictment happens to be a former Aggie cheerleader who has made a career of Louisiana-style cronyism while espousing appallingly bad political ideas in order to attract support from people who thought George W. Bush was too cerebral.

But I have to reluctantly agree with a number of legal critics that the indictment (http://www.scribd.com/doc/236935338/Rick-Perry-Indictment-via-KXAN) is a stretch, based on the history of the criminal statutes that the prosecutor has relied upon.

Governor Perry was indicted on two criminal counts, as follows:

I. COUNT NUMBER ONE – First Degree Felony – Abuse of Official Capacity

The first count (Abuse of Official Capacity) is a daring interpretation of Section 39.02 of the Texas Penal Code, which criminalizes (1) a public servant’s (2) intentional or knowing (3) misuse of government property under the servant’s control (4) when done with the intent to harm another person. Here’s the statute in question: http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.39.htm#39.02

The indictment alleges that (1) Governor Perry (a public servant) (2) intentionally or knowingly (3) threatened to withhold around $7.4 million in government funds (i.e., the government property) that had been appropriated by the Legislature for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in order to (4) harm the Travis County District Attorney. The “intentional or knowing misuse” in this case is alleged to be the politically vindictive veto of the budget line item in the General Appropriations Act passed by the 2013 Texas Legislature.

This criminal charge doesn’t seem particularly sporting or cricket at first glance, given that the Governor’s innate and reflexive political vindictiveness has never been deemed anything other than a moral outrage before now. Why is this veto so special as to merit criminal prosecution when none of Perry’s other vetoes ever led to criminal charges?

I suspect that the prosecutor’s argument will be that this particular veto is different because (1) it was not a veto of a policy statement or change in the law, but a veto that functioned to intentionally misdirect statutorily mandated and previously earmarked State money, and that (2) this veto was the explicit execution of the Governor’s clear and plainly-stated threat to punish the voters and taxpayers of Travis County in retaliation for the Travis County D.A.s refusal to resign her elected office, and was self-interested political payback with a dual motive, because the veto not only would have punished Travis County voters, but would also have shut down the very Public Integrity Unit that is responsible for investigating crimes of official misconduct committed by Texas public officials.

(A brief explanation as to why the Travis County D.A. has jurisdiction over crimes of official misconduct may be in order for some visitors. The State of Texas is regarded as having it’s official “home” in Austin, Texas, which is in Travis County. Crimes of official misconduct are regarded as crimes committed against the State of Texas – the State is therefore the victim, and because the State “lives” in Austin, the Travis County D.A. has jurisdiction over these crimes, even when committed by officials anywhere else in Texas. By law, the State pays the cost of this extra statewide investigative work that gets imposed on the Travis County government, given that the extra work is burdensome (most counties don’t have to conduct statewide investigations) and is imposed as an incidental consequence of the county’s political geography).

Why is this crime a first degree felony?

Like a lot of property-related offenses, this crime has a range of punishments depending on the value of the misused State property in question. Because the vetoed legislative appropriation was for (a lot) more than $200,000, and that level of money determines the severity of the offense, this specific indictment is alleging the commission of a first degree felony. That’s the kind of indictment that can knock stories about Ebola epidemics and Justin Bieber’s comeback tour right off the front page of the paper.

II. COUNT NUMBER TWO – Third Degree Felony – Coercion of Public Servant

(News sources I’ve seen have indicated that the second count is described as a third-degree felony, which indicates that the prosecutor’s intent is to argue that Governor Perry threatened to commit a felony. That’s because unless the charge is enhanced by the assertion that the Governor’s threatened act (vetoing the budget line item) is a felony, this would be a Class A Misdemeanor).

The second count is an equally audacious application of Section 36.03 of the Texas Penal Code (http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.36.htm#36.03), which criminalizes the (1) use of coercion (2) by a person to (3) influence, or attempt to influence (4) a public servant (5) in a specific exercise or specific performance of that public servant’s official duty or (6) to violate the public servant’s known public duty.

If you looked at the text of the statute supplied by the Texas Legislative Council, you probably noticed the last paragraph of that law. Subsection (c) provides a blanket exception to the crime of coercion of a public servant if the person doing the coercion is the member of a governing body, and if the influence is being applied in the form of an official action taken by the member of the governing body.

Gentle readers, Section 36.03(c) is going to be a huge hurdle for the prosecution to clear, given that a veto is a decidedly official act when performed by the Governor. Admittedly, the Governor isn’t a “member” of a governing body in the usual sense – he’s not one of several people co-exercising the power of the State’s executive office. But he is the titular head of the Executive Branch, and he is authorized by the Texas Constitution to veto line item budget appropriations.

Here, the prosecutor is alleging that (1) the threat to veto funding of the Public Integrity Unit (the coercion) was used by (2) Governor Perry (a person) to (3) force (influence) (4) Rosemary Lehmberg (a public servant) to (5 or 6) resign from her elected post as Travis County D.A. (specifically exercising her official duty or violating her known public duty to continue to serve as D.A.).

Well, there was definitely a threat in there, and it was definitely applied to influence the Travis County D.A. to quit her elected office. And (at least in everyday parlance) the threat was coercive – “Quit, or else.”

“Coercion” is a defined statutory term in this context (the relevant portion of the definition is found in Section 1.07(a)(9)(F) of the Texas Penal Code. http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.1.htm#1.07. Notice that in the context of Texas criminal law, the threat to take or withhold action as a public servant is automatically coercive.

So how will the prosecutor maneuver through the rocky shoals surrounding the second count? I imagine the prosecutor will argue that while the act of vetoing legislation is in general a sanctioned legal act of the Governor, that this specific veto was illegal (because it was a misuse of State funds), and therefore this veto can’t be described as an official act performed by the member of a governmental deliberative body. The veto itself needs to be an illegal act, because if the veto wasn’t illegal, than the threat of the veto would only have supported a Class A misdemeanor and not a felony charge.

And it’s felony charges that help get this lawsuit onto the front page of the New York Times.

III. THE ORIGINS OF THE PENAL STATUTES IN QUESTION

“Coercion of a Public Servant” and “Abuse of Official Capacity” are not new crimes – they have existed in roughly their current wording since the adoption of the 1973 Texas Penal Code, which was itself closely modeled on the 1925 Texas Penal Code (for the 1925 laws, see the State Law Library resources at http://www.sll.texas.gov/library-resources/collections/historical-texas-statutes-%281879-1925%29/1925/).

People tend to forget that Texas has used a formal penal code and associated code of criminal procedure since 1856, but even those who know about the 1856 Texas Penal Code are often unaware of how closely all the subsequent state criminal codes were modeled on the general organization and structure of the 1856 laws.

Although the 1856 Penal Code doesn’t contain crimes that are exact analogues of the “coercion” statute and the “abuse of official capacity” statute, the older law does encompass the two divisions of public crimes from whence the current statutes sprang, those divisions originally being referred to as crimes of office and crimes of public justice.

(The endlessly entertaining 1856 Penal Code (with whole sections devoted to dreadful punishments (whipping and castigation for poor demeanor or to aid in the instruction of children! Pillories and hanging for horse thievery!) and reminders of pre-Civil War barbarity (crimes associated with assisting escaped slaves! Disparate punishments for freedmen!) is available in its entirety through the Texas Legislative Reference Library, here: http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/scanned/statutes_and_codes/Penal_Code.pdf

“Abuse of Official Capacity” is, at its heart, a property crime – it is a malfeasance of office that materially affects things of value that are owned by the State. In that respect, the current crime is a descendant of extortion and misapplication of tax revenue, and related crimes such as embezzlement and theft of State land titles. One can see the statute begin to stretch and tear at the seams – it’s a property offense which is being repurposed from criminalizing the misuse of State property to punishing the vindictive use of gubernatorial veto power.

And “Coercion of a Public Servant” is, at its heart, a crime against public administration. It is a fraud or manipulation of public institutions for private ends, and shares textual DNA with crimes like bribery and perjury. From the indictment, one can also see this statute start to pucker and collapse as it is put to a new use categorizing a particular veto as a criminal act.

I’m popping up a big vat of popcorn and settling in for what should prove to be entertaining legal fireworks, no matter what the outcome may be.