Rove-connected judge recuses self from Minor case
There were startling new developments on Wednesday in a case of alleged political prosecution of a Mississippi attorney.
Once-prominent attorney Paul Minor, jailed on charges of bribery, has alleged that his prosecution was politically motivated and timed to Mississippi's gubernatorial elections. He has also alleged that there was direct involvement by former Bush White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove.
Surprise recusal from judgeThe United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear an appeal of the case today. Scheduled to serve on the three-judge panel were Judges Will Garwood, Priscilla R. Owen, and Catherina Haynes. This morning, however, only hours before oral arguments were to be presented, Judge Owen recused herself from the case.
In August of last year, Raw Story reported on Judge Owen's possible conflicts of interest, including connections to former Bush White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove:
Rove had a longstanding interest in Owen's career, beginning in 1994, when Owen hired him as a campaign consultant in her successful bid for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, paying him $250,000 for his efforts. Rove helped Owen raise over $900,000 for that campaign.
Jim Moore, a long-time Texas journalist who has chronicled Rove's career in several books, including Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, explained the unique relationship between Rove and Owen in a Wednesday phone interview.
"He did everything for her. He created her career. He handpicked her to go to the Texas Supreme Court when he was trying to take over the Texas Supreme Court," said Moore. "He was looking for people to groom and raise money for and have in his pipeline. Rove went and plucked her out of obscurity. She was an unknown lawyer in Houston."
Minor has alleged that Karl Rove was directly involved in his prosecution. In a letter sent in 2007 to the House Judiciary Committee, Minor wrote:
"I am writing to you because you are the only people who can help me prove that the Bush Justice Department's prosecution of me and Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr., and Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield was politically motivated. Over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that Karl Rove, political strategist for Bush and other Republicans, conceived a strategy to dry up political money to Democratic candidates which included using the Justice Department as an instrument to prosecute prominent Democrats, particularly trial lawyers."
Despite the possible conflicts of interest, Judge Owen did not recuse herself last year, ruling on August 15 against Minor's motion for bond pending appeal.
Late last week, Minor's attorneys were notified that Judge Owen would be presiding over today's appeal hearing. On Monday, Hiram Eastland -- one of those attorneys -- filed a motion with the court asking that Judge Owen recuse herself from today's proceedings.
Replacing Judge Owen for the hearing was Judge Fortunato Benavides. a President Clinton appointee.
Judges are skeptical of government's argumentMinor's defense team hired a court reporter to document the court proceedings. A rush transcript has been obtained by Raw Story and is linked here.
Questions from the judges showed skepticism of the government's case, says attorney and Columbia University Professor Scott Horton.
"It's always problematic assessing what's in the mind of a judge based on the questions he asks," Horton wrote in an email. "But in this case, it's clear that Judge Garwood has some real problems with the prosecutions case. He seems to think the theories are stretched pretty thin and he is obviously troubled by the government's claims that campaign donations to a judge can simply be counted as bribe payments."
"If the government applied this rule uniformly," Horton continued, "hundreds of judges would be prosecuted all across the country. And the Bush Justice Department applied this 'rule' only against Democrats, even though their Republican opponents took substantially larger sums of money from agents for litigants before them and were never investigated. If I were a government prosecutor sitting in the room, I would have walked out with a ill feeling. But we have to keep in mind that Garwood has a pretty strong trackrecord of upholding convictions, so the questions were a bit surprising."
In one particularly heated exchange, Judge Garwood corrected the government attorney, Elizabeth Collery, in relation to a Supreme Court ruling:
JUDGE GARWOOD: Doesn't it say though in any action, in any case now or which might thereafter be pending?
MS. COLLERY: That's right. The instruction allows the jury to convict if they believe that when Minor gave the bribes he didn't have a specific case in mind, a pending case. The bribes could be in connection with some future proceeding. And that's consistent with how bribery law has always been understood.
JUDGE GARWOOD: Is that not consistent with what the Supreme Court said in the agriculture department case.
MS. COLLERY: That's a gratuity case.
JUDGE GARWOOD: No. That's section 2 one -- what is it? 210?
MS. COLLERY: 201.
JUDGE GARWOOD: Which covers both gratuity and bribery and is exactly the same language in the gratuity and in the bribery statutes part of that statute. As far as what is designed to be influenced. It says an action. The words exactly the same and the Supreme Court said an action. Means a particular action, not just any action that might arise.
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver E. Diaz Jr., who was also tried twice -- and acquitted twice -- as part of the same government case against Minor and Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, was pleased with today's hearing.
"The judges were not buying the government's argument," he said. "Things could not have gone better for Paul [Minor]."
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