Judge U.W. Clemon criticized The Birmingham News and the Bush Justice Department at The National Press Club
by Glynn Wilson
WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the most significant problems corrupting American society and politics over the past eight years is finally getting the public spotlight it deserves in the nation’s capital. You can’t run a successful democracy without an honest system of justice that is removed as far as possible from politics, according to a panel of experts who spoke at one of the most venerated institutions in the United States, the National Press Club.
Some of the people who came from as far away as Alaska, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were a bit disappointed when it was announced that former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers were not able to make it.
But Elliot Mintzberg, chief counsel for oversight investigations of the House Judiciary Committee, who came in Conyers’ place, insisted that all the investigations are continuing full bore into the politicization of the justice system by the Bush White House and Department of Justice — in spite of a certain camp in Washington who would rather “look forward, not back.”
He said the investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys and the improper interference of Bush’s White House staff, including political aide Karl Rove, “is not yet done.”
|House Judiciary Committee investigator Elliot Mintzberg|
In response to my direct questions about when Karl Rove will be called to testify and the controversy over whether his testimony will be fully on the record and subject to contempt laws, Mintzberg said a date has been set, but he could not reveal it. He insisted the committee will fully probe Rove on the record in a transcribed deposition that will make him subject to perjury if he lies to Congress. He insisted the deposition will be released to the public when the time comes just like the testimony of other witnesses, including Alabama attorney Jill Simpson’s, who made the trip to Washington for the forum. And he said that might very well lead to public hearings.
Mintzberg said investigations are continuing on several fronts.
At the top of the list is the “unprecedented” firings of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration, including Republican lawyers who refused to investigate Democrats. Political hiring by the Department of Justice is also on the list of investigations, where the right-wing Federalist Society was used to screen candidates instead of professional, career prosecutors.
The committee is also looking at the Bush administration’s torture policies and massive warrantless wiretapping of American citizens with no connection to overseas terrorists.
In direct response to my question, Mintzberg would not confirm a recent report in the New York Times that showed the domestic spying continues “due to classification restrictions.” He said the issue is on the committee’s agenda and “we are very concerned about this.”
The issue of selective prosecutions is also on the list of investigations, where Republican U.S. attorneys prosecuted Democrats and ignored the crimes of Republican office holders, crimes which were far worse in many cases. Abuse by the FBI in issuing national security letters in the so-called “war on terror” is on the list, as well as problems with the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department and the coming fight over the renewal of The Patriot Act.
Then there’s state secrets and CIA renditions of suspects without warrants or due process, which Mintzberg called “one of the biggest disappointments” so far by the Obama administration.
Retired Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham, the first African-American federal judge in Alabama and one of the first in the South, said in his remarks to the press club and in an interview that while in his life he has faced down the likes of Bull Conner as a college student, Paul “Bear” Bryant as a civil rights lawyer, and George Wallace as a state senator, nothing can compare to the abuses of people’s rights that occurred during the Bush years. He indicated that his home town newspaper, The Birmingham News, has always been on the wrong side of history in the fights for justice.
|Retired Justice U.W. Clemon at the National Press Club|
After seeing the sometimes tragic results of unwarranted prosecutions in police brutality cases in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights struggle, Clemon said:
“I believe with every fiber in my body that when the awesome power of the greatest nation on god’s green earth is brought to bear against an individual or a group of citizens, there ought to be ample grounds for their prosecution.”
He said in most of the cases he oversaw as a trial judge in 30 years on the federal bench the government satisfied him that was the case, until the year 2000, when President George W. Bush took over the White House. Up to that time it mattered not whether a U.S. attorney was a Republican or a Democrat and in all cases there was at least “some evidence,” he said.
But that was not the case in U.S. Attorney Alice Martin’s attempt at the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, which he called “a glaring exception to the general rule.”
Clemon accused Martin of going on a “shopping spree” for a Republican judge to oversee the case against Siegelman, and he said Martin had another judge appointed by a Democratic president, a second cousin of Gov. Bob Riley, recuse himself “in a symbiotic relationship with The Birmingham News.”
That’s when the “fickle hand of fate” and the court’s random selection process chose him, which prompted a series of articles and editorials from The Birmingham News trying to get him to disqualify himself from the case. In his talk he detailed the paper’s attacks on him in trying to get him to recuse himself in hearing the original case against Siegelman. He said the paper’s management, editors and reporters tried to taint the jury pool against Siegelman had there been a full trial. As one example, he said the News accused him of being a crony of Siegelman, even though they were in different factions of the Democratic Party — and Siegelman’s faction did not support his nomination to the federal bench.
“So publicly, our relationship was something less than a mutual admiration society,” he said. “Privately, we didn’t know each other.”
Then Martin’s attempt failed to get the Eleventh U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Atlanta to remove him from the case.
After reviewing the charges against Siegelman, which alleged a conspiracy, Clemon held a hearing and heard testimony from a number of witnesses who said there was no conspiracy. He ruled the government failed to provide substantial proof of a conspiracy, of a quid pro quo, and the case was dismissed “with prejudice.” But that did not stop the Bush Justice Department from bringing another case in Montgomery.
Clemon said he recently talked to President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder after writing a letter to him asking for an investigation into Siegelman’s prosecution, and he said Holder assured him there would be a “full investigation” by the Obama Justice Department.
Other speakers at the conference include Harper’s magazine contributor Scott Horton; Charles “Champ” Walker, son of Georgia Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker; former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, twice acquitted in prosecutions that imprisoned trial lawyer Paul Minor; Puerto Rico State Senate Minority Whip Eduardo Bhatia (D), representing acquitted former Gov. Anibal Acevedo; Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron; Project Save Justice Executive Director Gail Sistrunk, discussing the group’s video, “The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove”; Investigative reporter Andrew Kreig; and McClendon Group President John Hurley.
You can now watch most of the conference on C-SPAN here…
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