Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 23, 2006
LAW: Of Dancing Angels and Heads of Pins

Now, I likes me a good technical argument as much as the next lawyer, but this strikes me as going a bit far. A federal statute says the court can punish as contempt "[m]isbehavior of any person in its presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice." A plaintiff (the husband of an ex-con, I should note, suing over a beating at the hands of a fellow inmate) attempted to tamper with a witness, during jury deliberations, in the courthouse cafeteria. The Second Circuit, in its opinion in United States v. Rangolan, reverses her contempt conviction:

Rangolan's misbehavior occurred not in court, but in a cafeteria ten floors below the court room. Unlike jury rooms, witness rooms, or immediately adjacent hallways, the cafeteria is not a place "set apart" for official court business, or for the use of jurors or other trial participants. The juror was not on official business but was simply having breakfast. Moreover, Rangolan's misbehavior took place at 9:15 a.m., before the court was in session. ...

Deeming the court "present" in a public cafeteria ten floors below the courtroom and not shown to have been separated out for court business, at a time when court is not in session, distorts the important geographical and temporal limitations Congress intended when it passed the predecessor to [Section] 401(1) to, in part, limit the contempt power.

For many of the same reasons, we also conclude that Rangolan's misbehavior does not qualify as conduct "so near to" the court . . . Suppose, for example, that instead of confronting the juror in the cafeteria, Rangolan had driven several miles to the juror's home and handed him the stack of papers, or that Rangolan confronted the juror in a coffee shop across the street from the courthouse. Under the government's theory, Rangolan would still have violated [Sec.] 401(1) because the trial judge would have been forced to turn his attention away from the trial to address the misconduct and a delay would have resulted. This result, of course, ignores [a 1941 Supreme Court case] which requires us to focus on the geographic proximity of the misbehavior, not simply on whatever obstruction may have occurred. In other words, the degree of obstruction would have been largely identical if the misbehavior occurred in either the cafeteria or the juror's home or the coffee shop, yet it could not be seriously argued that the misconduct in the latter locations occurred geographically "so near" to the court as to obstruct justice. While it may have occurred in the same building, we nonetheless conclude that Rangolan's misbehavior in the cafeteria is geographically and conceptually more akin to misbehavior across town at the juror's home or in the coffee shop, than it is to misbehavior in a jury room, witness room, or hallway adjacent to the courtroom.

I really fail to see why it is so difficult to conclude that the contempt statute covers jury tampering on federal property, in a cafeteria no juror would ferquent but for the fact that they were at the courthouse on court business. After all, while a determined litigant could visit a juror's home, that takes hard work; approaching the jurors when they are within the courthouse walls is a temptation to the unscrupulous litigant precisely because the inside of the courthouse is "so near" - and the ease of reaching jurors on the grounds of the court itself, when they have appeared on court business, is precisely what makes such tampering uniquely likely "to obstruct the administration of justice."

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:15 PM | Law 2006-08 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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