The Trumpiest court in America

“Trent Taylor says his cell, in a Texas psychiatric unit operated by the state’s prison system, was covered in human excrement. Feces smeared the window and streaked the ceiling. Someone had painted a shit swastika on the wall, alongside a smiley face. According to Taylor’s allegations in a federal lawsuit, there was such a thick layer of dried human dung on the floor of the cell that it made a crunching sound as he walked naked across the cell.
Taylor alleged that he was kept in this cell for four days, where he neither ate nor drank due to fears that the excrement, which was even packed inside the cell’s water faucet, would contaminate anything he consumed. Then, on the fifth day, he was moved to a bare, frigid cell with no toilet, water fountain, or bed. A clogged drain filled the new cell with choking ammonia films. With nowhere to relieve himself, Taylor held his urine for 24 hours before he could do so no longer. And then he had to sleep alone on the floor while covered in his own waste.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled 7–1 that Taylor’s lawsuit against the corrections officers who forced him to live in these conditions could move forward, and that lawsuit settled last February. But the Supreme Court had to intervene after an even more conservative court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, attempted to shut down these claims against the prison guards.

A unanimous panel of three Fifth Circuit judges held that it was unclear whether the Constitution prevents prisoners from being forced to remain in “extremely dirty cells for only six days” — although, in what counts as an act of mercy in the Fifth Circuit, the panel did concede that “prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste for months on end.”

This decision, in Taylor v. Stevens, is hardly aberrant behavior by the Fifth Circuit, which oversees federal litigation arising out of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Fifth Circuit’s Taylor decision stands out for its casual cruelty, but its disregard for law, precedent, logic, and basic human decency is ordinary behavior in this court.

Dominated by partisans and ideologues — a dozen of the court’s 17 active judgeships are held by Republican appointees, half of whom are Trump judges — the Fifth Circuit is where law goes to die. And, because the Fifth Circuit oversees federal litigation arising out of Texas, whose federal trial courts have become a pipeline for far-right legal decisions, the Fifth Circuit’s judges frequently create havoc with national consequences.

The Fifth Circuit has, in recent months, declared an entire federal agency unconstitutional and stripped another of its authority to enforce federal laws protecting investors from fraud. It permitted Texas Republicans to effectively seize control of content moderation at social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Less than a year ago, the Fifth Circuit forced the Navy to deploy sailors who defied an order to take the Covid vaccine, despite the Navy’s warning that a sick service member could sideline an entire vessel or force the military to conduct a dangerous mission to extract a Navy SEAL with Covid.

As Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote when the Supreme Court restored the military’s command over its own personnel, the Fifth Circuit’s approach wrongly inserted the courts “into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments.”

And this is just a small sample of the decisions the Fifth Circuit has handed down in 2022.”

“while the Fifth Circuit is so extreme that its decisions are often reversed even by the Supreme Court’s current, very conservative majority, its devil-may-care approach to the law can throw much of the government into chaos, and even destabilize our relations with foreign nations, before a higher authority steps in. Worse, the Fifth Circuit’s antics could very well be a harbinger for what the entire federal judiciary will become if Republicans get to replace more justices.”

“the Supreme Court only hears a tiny percentage of the cases decided by federal appeals courts, and it almost never hears cases brought by extraordinarily vulnerable litigants like Trent Taylor. Indeed, it hears these cases so infrequently that, when the Court decided to intervene on Taylor’s behalf, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a brief opinion complaining that Taylor’s case “which turns entirely on an interpretation of the record in one particular case, is a quintessential example of the kind that we almost never review.”

The Fifth Circuit hears a steady diet of ordinary immigration cases, which will often decide whether an individual immigrant can remain with their family in the United States or whether they must be deported to a nation they may barely know, or where they may fear for their physical safety. These cases are now heard by judges like Andrew Oldham, Trump’s sixth appointment to the Fifth Circuit, who spent much of his time both on and off the bench seeking to make federal immigration policies harsher to immigrants.

Similarly, the court hears a steady diet of employment discrimination cases.”

“there are reforms that Congress or the Supreme Court could implement, which would diminish both the Fifth Circuit’s power and the power of litigants to channel political lawsuits to highly ideological judges. Congress, for example, may strip the Fifth Circuit of its jurisdiction over certain cases, or require certain suits to be filed in a federal court that is not located in the Fifth Circuit. It could also add seats to the court, which would then be filled by President Biden.

A less radical reform, proposed by former Fifth Circuit Judge Gregg Costa, would prevent litigants like the Texas AG’s office from handpicking judges who are likely to rule in their favor — and whose decisions are equally likely to be affirmed by the Fifth Circuit. Costa proposed having all lawsuits seeking a nationwide injunction against a federal law or policy be heard by three-judge panels, rather than a single judge chosen by the plaintiff. These panels’ decisions would then appeal directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing the Fifth Circuit (although a single Fifth Circuit judge might sit on some of these panels).

Realistically, however, systemic reforms to the problem of judge-shopping — and to the problem of a lawless court of appeals — are unlikely to happen anytime soon. The House of Representatives will soon be controlled by Republicans, who are unlikely to support legislation that reduces the power of their partisan allies on the bench. And the Supreme Court has six justices appointed by Republican presidents.

And so the Fifth Circuit will continue to hand down its decrees, confident that no one with the power to stop them is likely to do so.”

Arizona Town To Pay $8 Million to Widow of Daniel Shaver, Shot While Crawling Unarmed Toward Police

“In January 2016, Mesa police responded to a report of a man pointing a rifle out of a hotel window. It was in fact Shaver showing a pellet gun that he used at his exterminator job to a couple other hotel guests in his room.

Police ordered Shaver out of the hotel room and onto the ground, with his hands behind his head. But instead of handcuffing Shaver, officers—bizarrely—started barking confusing and contradictory orders at him to crawl toward them. As a clearly terrified and drunk Shaver tried to crawl toward the police, he appeared to reach toward his waistband to pull up his sagging shorts. A Mesa officer, Philip Mitchell Brailsford, shot Shaver five times with an AR-15, killing him.”

“In 2017, a jury acquitted Brailsford of second-degree murder and reckless manslaughter. This is because juries are instructed to judge officers not by how a normal civilian would respond, but by how a reasonable police officer is trained to respond to a threat, real or imagined. As Reason’s Jacob Sullum wrote, the acquittal showed that cops on trial benefit from a double standard: “Unlike ordinary citizens, they can kill with impunity as long as they say they were afraid, whether or not their fear was justified.””

“Brailsford indeed challenged his termination, and in response, the city cut a special deal that allowed him to be temporarily re-hired so he could retire with medical benefits and a disability pension. Brailsford claimed that killing Shaver and his subsequent prosecution gave him post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of this, he will receive a monthly pension check of $2,569.21 for the rest of his life, courtesy of Mesa taxpayers.”

Wildlife Agents Placed a Camera on His Property Without a Warrant, Then Raided His Home After He Removed It

“A number of state wildlife agencies as well as FWS claim the right to not only enter private property, but in some cases to plant cameras as well, without either a warrant or the property owner’s permission. For example, a chapter of the FWS policy manual denoting “circumstances where a Service officer may observe and obtain evidence without courts considering it a search” stipulates, “when Service officers enter onto open fields…their observations are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
The open fields doctrine dates back to the Prohibition-era Supreme Court decision Hester v. United States (1924). Revenue agents caught a bootlegger with jugs of moonshine. He was on his property but away from his home. He sued to overturn his arrest, as the officers were on the property without a warrant. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the arrest, finding that “the special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects’ is not extended to the open fields.”

Decades later, the Court affirmed the decision in Oliver v. United States (1984): Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. held that “in the case of open fields, the general rights of property protected by the common law of trespass have little or no relevance to the applicability of the Fourth Amendment.” Further, “steps taken to protect privacy,” like fences or “No Trespassing” signs, “do not establish that expectations of privacy in an open field are legitimate in the sense required by the Fourth Amendment.””

Houston Prosecutors Are Keeping Cash Seized From Defendants Whose Cases Were Compromised by Police Corruption

“Even in cases that hinged on the trustworthiness of demonstrably untrustworthy cops, The Houston Chronicle reports, prosecutors so far have chosen to keep nearly all of the property seized from defendants. That striking contradiction illustrates the lax rules governing civil asset forfeiture, which allows police and prosecutors to pad their budgets by confiscating allegedly crime-tainted property.
The Chronicle identified “three dozen instances in recent years in which an indicted member of the Squad 15 narcotics unit swore to the facts used to justify a search leading to a cash or vehicle confiscation.” The loot, collected over a five-year period, included about $75,000 in cash and several cars. “Records show some or all of the money confiscated during the busts was returned in five cases,” the Chronicle reports, “typically after defendants hired lawyers to challenge the forfeitures.” But the county has kept the rest of the money and the cars, even though prosecutors consider the evidence that led to the seizures unreliable because it was offered by cops with a record of making stuff up.”

Tough-on-Crime Cash Bail Initiatives Win in Ohio and Alabama

“Ohio’s new constitutional amendment will allow judges to set a dollar amount commensurate with a person’s criminal record, the seriousness of their alleged crime, and their odds of appearing at court following pretrial release. The Ohio Senate ushered the initiative forward in direct response to a ruling from the state’s highest court, which said in early January that bail could only be used to ensure a defendant’s presence at trial—the constitutionally prescribed reason for its use.

In Alabama, voters were tasked with deciding if the state should be able to deny bail for certain offenses if the government can convince a judge that the defendant poses a threat to the community or cannot be trusted to return to court. Those offenses include murder; first-degree kidnapping, rape, and sodomy; sexual torture; first-degree domestic violence, human trafficking, burglary, arson, and robbery; terrorism; and child abuse.”

“the debate has become increasingly politicized. Many reformers say that a dangerousness standard is racist, while law-and-order politicians are likely to present any bail reform as a driver of violent crime.
The answer is more nuanced than either major political party would want their base to believe.”

Don’t Believe the People Blaming Crime on Defunded Police

“Of the 109 areas examined, 49 raised law enforcement funding by more than 10 percent and 91 raised it by at least 2 percent. Only 8 places cut funding to law enforcement by more than 2 percent.
Nonetheless, politicians, pundits, and police persist in spreading the politically convenient myth that law enforcement agencies have been massively defunded. “Despite what the public record shows, an analysis of broadcast transcripts reveals that candidates, law enforcement leaders and television hosts discussed the impact of ‘defunding the police’ more than 10,000 times the last two years and the mentions aren’t subsiding this campaign season,” ABC found.

Take scandal plagued Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He claims that crime is up because “defunding has consequences.” Meanwhile, “his agency’s budget is up more than $250 million,” according to ABC. In Los Angeles County, the police budget was up to $3.6 billion in 2021–2022, from $3.3 billion in 2018–2019.”