News Law and Policy

Montana Supreme Court Blocks New Hearing for Rapist Given 30-Day Sentence

Jessica Mason Pieklo

On Friday, the Montana Supreme Court stepped into the controversy surrounding Judge G. Todd Baugh and the 30-day sentence he gave a former high school teacher, Stacey Dean Rambold, who admitted raping a 14-year-old student.

On Friday, the Montana Supreme Court stepped into the controversy surrounding Judge G. Todd Baugh and the 30-day sentence he gave a former high school teacher, Stacey Dean Rambold, who admitted raping a 14-year-old student, blocking the judge from holding a re-sentencing hearing.

An appeal of the case is pending, but after widespread criticism of both the sentence and remarks that the victim was “as much in control of the situation as was the defendant,” Judge Baugh apologized and began looking for ways to revisit his sentencing decision. Once he ordered a re-hearing, the state attorney general’s office filed an emergency petition to stop the hearing, arguing that holding it would throw the case into chaos and “cause gross injustice to an orderly appeal.” The Montana Supreme Court agreed and intervened less than an hour before the new hearing was set to begin, ordering Baugh to cancel it and enter a written sentence for Rambold.

Judge Baugh originally sentenced Rambold to 15 years with all but 31 days suspended and a one-day credit for time served. The sentence, which was first suggested by Rambold’s attorney, worked out to 30 days of actual time served. Prosecutors didn’t challenge the sentence as illegal until after the fact, when they realized the mandatory minimum sentence for sexual intercourse without consent is two years.

Baugh had originally defended his sentencing decision as warranted by the circumstances of the case. Rambold was described as being a low risk to re-offend because he had no prior record and had spent more than two years in a sex-offender treatment program. Rambold entered that program in 2010, just after his victim committed suicide and right before the case against him was set to go to trial. Without their main witness, prosecutors opted for a deferred prosecution deal with Rambold that allowed him to avoid trial so long as he completed treatment, among other things. But Rambold violated the terms of that agreement last year when he failed to report he was in a sexual relationship with a woman and made unauthorized visits with family members’ children.

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According to court documents, at least three years before his relationship with his 14-year-old former student, Rambold was “warned to stay away from young girls in his class.” Complaints about Rambold’s conduct with female students date back as far as 2004. No charges were filed from those accusations, and it’s unclear how, if at all, that information factored into Baugh’s determination that Rambold represented a low risk to re-offend.

Prosecutors argue in their appeal that state law says Rambold must serve at least two years in prison. Attorneys for Rambold want the 30-day sentence to stand, and say any new sentence would only create “confusion and uncertainty for all parties.”

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hints at More Supreme Court Retirements

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dishes on the last Supreme Court term and hints the next president may have more than one justice to appoint.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggests the next president is going to have a couple of U.S. Supreme Court nominations to make, which means the Court could be effectively up for grabs depending on this election’s outcome.

This summer, the Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits who object to providing contraception to try and find some kind of compromise. While they hammer one out, a University of Notre Dame student has asked a federal appeals court to let her join in the litigation, to fight the university’s stance of trying to deny access to contraception coverage.

Anti-choice protesters will be descending on Wichita, Kansas, this week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy clinic sieges.

A state judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) against Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky for purportedly performing abortions without license.

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Florida officials have not yet appealed a federal district court ruling blocking a law that would have prevented Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood reproductive health care centers. The law would also mandate a state regulator review of patient records from half of the approximately 70,000 abortions in the state each year.

An Ohio appeals court ruled a Cleveland abortion clinic can move forward with its lawsuit challenging requirements that prohibit public hospitals from entering into transfer agreements with clinics, along with another requirement that mandates providers to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued to block an Indiana law requiring that a patient getting an abortion must have an ultrasound 18 hours before the procedure.

Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters in Wisconsin are urging lawmakers to repeal the state’s admitting privileges requirement.

Anti-choice lawmakers in Texas plan to try to require aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated in an attempt to add additional emotional burden and administrative expense to the procedure.

Free speech for whom, exactly? The man who posted the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling has been reportedly arrested on charges of assault and battery.