Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Story of Miracles, Blessings, and a Possible Future Saint as Told at a Faith-Based University

Cystic fibrosis cure ribbon car magnet-500x500One of the regular themes of the Mirror of Justice is the distinct value of religiously-affiliated higher education, most particularly in the law school environment.  The following story does not involve legal education but does illustrate the small miracles and serendipitous (read: divine) encounters of people of faith that we see again and again in faith-based educational settings.  God’s ways may be mysterious, so it is hardly surprising that we are more likely to perceive those ways at a faith-based school where we are open to those mysteries.

My daughter Katie is a sophomore at Notre Dame.  Football Saturdays, of course, are a legendary part of the Notre Dame experience.  When the Fighting Irish play at home, a host of visitors come to campus.  On the Saturday of a recent home football game (we won’t say anything more about the game itself — it suffices to say it was a game in the second half of the season), my daughter was walking to the stadium with her two roommates, Jackie and Maddy.  They happened upon a tailgate party hosted by a young couple to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Intrigued by this tailgate with a purpose, because Jackie has cystic fibrosis, the group of three Notre Dame sophomores stopped to talk with the hosts. Nora2513486_1415215502.3428

They learned that the couple running the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation — one a graduate of Notre Dame and the other of St. Mary’s — had been blessed only three weeks earlier with the birth of a daughter, Nora.  But Nora was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and soon was in critical condition as her bowel accidentally had been perforated. Jackie told the parents that, like their little new daughter, she too had the condition, presenting to them an in-the-flesh example of a successful young woman at a leading national university who was joyfully overcoming cystic fibrosis.  The smiles grew larger all around, even as the tears began to flow.  Truly Providence had brought these five people together, blessing both the three Notre Dame students and Nora’s parents. 

But the Notre Dame bond ran still deeper, as another spiritual stage had been set.  The mother of the new-born with cystic fibrosis mentioned that, when her little daughter was going into surgery with little chance of survival, she had invoked the help of an American candidate for beatification, Father Solanus Casey and had asked his followers around the world the join in prayer for Nora.  Venerable Solanus (or Barney) Casey, who had been a beloved priest in Detroit with a heart for the sick, lived from 1870 to 1957. Indeed, the mother emphasized she had been careful to invoke the help only of Solanus Casey and had asked recipients of her email message to do the same.

Displaying the photograph proof, Nora’s mother had touched a Father Casey relic to the baby’s cheek and then watched the baby’s face transform from an expression of pain to one of bliss.  Little Nora survived and continues to slowly recover, contrary to the expectations and beyond the explanations of her physicians.  (Support for the family by generous donors is most appreciated:  here.)  Nora’s mother is submitting the evidence of this miracle to the Vatican in support of Father Casey’s causeSolanus2

As this small group of students and Nora’s parents celebrated God’s grace together, Nora’s parents were amazed to find how well informed my daughter Katie was about subject of beautification in general and about leading American candidates in particular.  As a freshman seminar last year, Katie had studied American saints and conducted research on the cause of American candidates for beatification or canonization.  As Katie has told her seminar professor, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, having been able to study the subject in that class allowed Katie to share more fully in that beautiful moment with Nora’s parents on the Notre Dame campus months later.  This meeting ended with the parents showing Katie, Jackie, Maddy, and Mikey pictures of Nora smiling (and, yes, as a further miracle, she was able to smile even at such a young age) while holding the relic of Blessed Father Casey.  Keep Nora and her parents in her prayers and continue to seek the intercession of Father Casey.

God of course moves in the lives and experiences of those who rely on Him while attending non-religious schools, and the power of the divine breaks through any attempted line of separation.  God meets us wherever we are faithful.  But through the spiritual environment created, the deliberate development of a faith-based curriculum, and the faithful intentionality of event-planning, religiously-affiliated schools are uniquely open to the movement of God.

December 5, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Friday, November 21, 2014

Obama's Immigration Speech: Masterful

You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt. (New American Bible, Exodus 22:20)

As anyone who has visited the Mirror of Justice knows, my political affiliation is Republican, which I believe is consistent with my Catholic values.  But when the two conflict, the principles underlying Catholic teaching must take priority.

So let me give credit where credit is due:  President Obama's speech last night was masterful.

I am not saying that I agree with the wisdom of his exercise of executive authority on this matter.  Nor do I mean here to come down on one or the other side of the debate on the legality of his executive order.

But, setting the means to one side for a moment, the substance and style of President Obama's address to the nation were admirable.  He was conversational, while also being eloquent.  He offered thoughtful points, not merely rhetoric, without dragging on at length (as he is wont to do).  He explained not only what he was doing, but also the many things he was not doing, exemplifying some measure of prudence.

He was generous toward those who disagree with him, not showing any of the petulance that some have perceived in the days since the Democratic defeat in the midterm elections.  He forthrightly addressed the difficult questions, not bypassing them.  He explained his reasoning on those issues, seeking to find a consensus path.  I do recognize that some will respond to the President's action by refusing thereafter to consider legislative immigration reform.  This would be a mistake of both strategy and policy.  There remains much work for the Congress to do on immigration.  President Obama has not preempted that work.  And he will prove, I believe, to be a willing partner in that political process from this point onward.

And President Obama spoke from the heart and reflected well on the American character.  His closing with Scripture -- the passage reminding the people of Israel to be generous with those who are strangers in the land for they were once strangers in a foreign land -- was right on the mark and should strike to the heart of every person of faith.  (I am saddened that some conservatives, I hope in the heat of the moment, have suggested that quoting the Bible was somehow out of bounds.  Recalling what Jesus told his disciples when they complained that some people not of their group were doing works in his name, we should celebrate when others send forth the Word of God.  Mark 9:38-40:  Jesus:  "For whoever is not against us is for us.").  I've set out above the passage from Exodus that President Obama used, from the New American Bible frequently used by Catholics.

But please, and I say this especially to my fellow Republicans who are understandably dubious about President Obama's policies and motivations, don't take my word for it.  Invest the very few minutes necessary to listen to the speech in its entirety and do so with an open heart before making a judgment.  For convenience, I link directly to it below:

 

November 21, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Friday, November 14, 2014

And Still Another Post on Yates: The Criminal Statute Interpretation Case That Proves to be Bigger on the Inside Than on the Outside (the Tardis Case)

Dr_Who_(316350537)

A couple of days ago, Kevin Walsh said that, after listening to the Supreme Court oral argument in Yates v. United States, he was tempering his prediction that the criminal defendant-petitioner in that case would lose unanimously.  At the end of the post, Kevin kindly suggested that Rick Garnett (who participated in an amicus brief in support of the petitioner) and I (who posted about Yates earlier here) might have the better of interpretive prediction this time around.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what the final outcome will be in Yates.  And, while I do come down on the petitioner’s side, I also don’t think that Yates on its peculiar facts presents the most important questions about how to read and apply the extraordinarily-broad obstruction of justice statute invoked here.

However it plays out in this case, I share Kevin’s reaction that the exchanges at the oral argument were remarkable.  The uneasiness expressed by several Justices about the breathtaking scope of this criminal statute may foreshadow what will come in later cases.  And those remarks suggest an increasing wariness on the Court toward federal prosecutors and over-charging, as well as growing concern about the proliferation, expansion, and severity of federal criminal statutes.

But I’ve jumped into the middle of the story.  So let me start at the beginning.

Below the fold, I will briefly sketch out the background to and issue presented in the Yates case, which is presently pending before the Supreme Court.

Then I'll explain how the arguably small and simple Yates case became the entry-point to these broader issues at the oral argument.  In the hope that you will keep reading below the fold, I offer here the Tardis teaser about the Yates case being bigger on the inside than the outside.

And once you’ve read some samples of the exchanges at the oral argument in Yates, I believe you’ll be sufficiently intrigued to continue with the discussion of these pressing issues — and to listen to the audio of this rather entertaining oral argument.

Finally, to put the deeper and more troubling issues about this broad obstruction of justice statute into a real-world context, I'll offer a hypothetical about a lawyer and a client who wishes to turn away from a life of sin.

Continue reading

November 14, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Living on a Blue Island

Blueisland

I’ve thought that the best forecast for elections tends to be Matthew Dowd’s prediction that both the winning and the losing parties will misread the lessons of that election.  You will be the judge of whether the following stumbles and falls against that caution.

For months, I have been skeptical (but as a Republican, hopeful) that the Republicans would be able to climb the high hill of taking over six Democratic seats to obtain a majority in the United States Senate in 2014.  I thought it probable that Republicans would fall a seat or two short.  If that had happened, I expected that the meme of today would be that Republicans had badly lost by missing that six-vote switch, ignoring what would be the rather respectable achievement of picking up four or five Senate seats.

As a recent example of such mis-reading of election results, a false mantra had taken hold about President Obama’s supposedly big victory in 2012.  Just a few days ago, in noting how much the landscape had changed in the Republican direction, the New York Times remarked that President Obama had won re-election just two years ago by a “commanding margin.”  Only in the world of news spin can an incumbent president winning re-election by 51 percent of the vote—near the low point for presidential re-elections in American history—be characterized as a “commanding margin.”

I was too cautious about Republican prospects—obviously.  And thus far, I have been pleasantly mistaken about the general acceptance of the meaning of those election results.  Last night saw a higher Republican wave than nearly anyone had anticipated, most definitely including me.  And no one seems to be missing the message (other than, perhaps, the Obama White House).

Republicans were remarkably sober in victory, suggesting they might be learning something.  Republican winners appear to recognize that they are on probation, that the public doesn’t much like either party these days, and thus Republican winners now are expected to perform.  On the other side, with some exceptions, both the media and most Democrats recognize that the mid-term election was a resounding vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration.

An election that had merely produced a Republican majority in the Senate would have been (with much justification) dismissed as a product of an unusually favorable map for Republicans, given that so many close Senate contests were being waged this year in states that President Obama lost in 2012.  But that narrative would be sharply at odds with the electoral reality that ultimately emerged last night.  The biggest stories of the night came in purple and even blue states, with Republican Senate victories in Iowa, Colorado, and North Carolina (and pulling even in Virginia), as well as new Republican Governors in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois.

Not here in Minnesota.  Democratic Senator Al Franken and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton were both re-elected.  Beginning in January, Minnesota will be an island of blue surrounded by Midwest states with Republican Governors.  At the gubernatorial level, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have all turned red.

The Republican wave did wash up in Minnesota, though not too far up the shore.  Governor Dayton was expected to win re-election handily, but instead barely cracked 50 percent and finished only five points ahead of an under-funded and largely ignored Republican opponent.  And Republicans defeated 11 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party incumbents to retake control of the state house of representatives.  Still, the DFL won all state-wide contests and holds the state senate.

Now the states are said to be the laboratories of democracy.  While reform Republican governors are now taking charge in all of the neighboring Midwest states, Minnesota’s Democratic governor will continue to be a staid and old-fashioned creature of government.  He tends to see the answer to every problem as more government, assume that every conflict is one in which government falls on the side of the more vulnerable, and zealously uphold the interests of government employee unions.

As but one example of democratic experiments, it will be interesting to see what happens throughout the Midwest in the area of education.  Midwest states have long prided themselves on being among the best in the country in education.  Those who graduate from high school, and also avoid a criminal record or becoming a parent while still a teenager, are unlikely to ever to live in poverty.

Catholics have long recognized that education offers the greatest hope for transforming lives and lifting people out of poverty. And as Catholics with a holistic view of the human person, we know that education opens up human potential, allows people to thrive in cultural richness as well as economic satisfaction, and helps us better understand the world around us and thereby better understand God.

And yet that educational promise is not being kept for all, especially for poor children in minority communities. Despite the pretenses of federal officials and the political advertisements of candidates for President and Congress, the states remain the center of education, and thus state governments are where the action on education will continue to be centered.  And there is much work to do.

Minnesota has one of the greatest disparities in educational achievement between black and white children in the country.  Four years of a Democratic governor—and two years of solid Democratic control of the entire state government—have done nothing to reduce that disparity.  Indeed, those of us who are critical of the DFL agenda in Minnesota would argue that a state administration tightly connected to the teachers’ union has squandered opportunities to move in a positive direction.

Governor Dayton repeatedly announced in his campaign commercials during this cycle that he “cared about education.”  I have no doubt that he does.  But so does everyone else.  That hardly makes him distinctive.  What matters in how one expresses that concern.  Unfortunately, whenever there is a difficult choice between the interests of the teachers’ union and the interests of kids, Governor Dayton can be counted on to side with the teachers’ union.

When the state legislature voted to allow school districts to consider teacher quality (here), rather than merely seniority, when forced to lay-off teachers, Governor Dayton vetoed it (here).  He ignored reams of empirical studies showing that teacher excellence, which is most definitely measurable, has a powerful correlation with outcomes for students, especially those most at risk.  But Governor Dayton chose instead to stand with the teachers’ union in favor of rigid and archaic tenure rules.

Governor Dayton then used the line-item veto to deny continued funding to the innovative Teach for America program, which places non-traditional college-educated people—who don’t have a regular teaching certificate—into over-stressed public schools and for subjects on which qualified teachers are desperately wanting (here).  Once again, Governor Dayton chose the interests of the teachers’ union, which wants to control the pipeline into the teaching profession.  Indeed, when the Teach for America program persevered despite the loss of Minnesota state funding, Governor Dayton’s union-mentality appointees to the state Board of Teaching tried to block those teachers from the classroom (here), later back-tracking under pressure.

One of my colleagues, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, points to the stark and indefensible fact that public schools in Minneapolis with a majority of minority-race students are offered teachers with considerably less experience and advanced training than are public schools in the city with white majorities (here).  In an elementary school in Minneapolis that is nearly 90 percent white, for example, more than 90 percent of the teachers have ten years experience or more.  By contrast, at two elementary schools with more than 88 percent black students, about a third of the teachers have been teaching for less than three years.

A reform of teacher assignment rules in Minneapolis is plainly indicated.  But the forces of the status quo may prove stubborn in resisting such reform.

Governor Dayton’s fealty to the teachers’ union seems likely to stymie educational reforms in Minnesota, at least those beyond throwing taxpayer dollars at his allies in the educational establishment.  As a consequence, Minnesotans will likely be outside observers in our region of the country when it comes to meaningful educational reform.  As educational innovations take hold in the surrounding states with reform-minded Republican governors—some of which may work, others which prove unsuccessful—Minnesota is likely to adhere to the status quo.

I suppose that’s part of the democratic laboratory as well.  Minnesota is left to serve as the control group in comparison with our innovative neighbors.  But that’s little solace to those who are left behind.

November 5, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Passing of "Big John" Colwell

For I was in prison and you visited me.  (Matthew 25:36)

A couple of months ago, I posted two messages (here and here) about prisoner rights cases that had been won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit through our Appellate Clinic at the University of St. Thomas, working in partnership with the University of Arkansas Federal Appellate Litigation Project.

One of those cases, Colwell v. Bannister (decision here), was handled primarily by our Arkansas partners.  The case involved a prisoner who had suffered for a decade from blindness in one eye due to a cataract, which could easily be removed by surgery.  The Nevada prison refused to approve cataract surgery despite the recommendations of his doctors.

In a published opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the Nevada Department of Corrections. In words that speak eloquently to the fundamental dignity of all persons, including our neighbors held in prison, the Ninth Circuit held “that the blanket, categorical denial of medically indicated surgery solely on the basis of an administrative policy that ‘one eye is good enough for prison inmates’ is the paradigm of deliberate indifference.”

Shortly after the Colwell opinion was issued in August, the University of Arkansas appellate team received a letter from “Big John” Colwell saying, “I cannot express how much I appreciate you and your team.  I’m proud that you chose to represent me and went way beyond my expectations.”  Mr. Colwell also praised the information and attentive communications they had maintained with him.  He went on to say that he learned of his victory in the Ninth Circuit even before a letter arrived from the Arkansas team or they were allowed to make a telephone call into the prison.  A corrections officer had stopped to congratulate Mr. Colwell and told him that his story was in the Nevada newspapers that day.

Inside the legal academy, I know this kind of appreciation from clients who were well-served by faithful lawyers is a regular part of the experience of our colleagues who teach in clinical programs, as well as many others in law schools who do pro bono work for the disadvantaged.  So this episode might otherwise go without further mention, beyond the satisfaction taken by those of us involved with the case.

But I take the time to relate this particular story because the impact we were able to make on the life on this man, giving him a sense of dignity well beyond the success in the appeal, was brought home powerfully to me last week.  Shortly after we got the word that the Ninth Circuit had denied Nevada’s petition for rehearing en banc, we learned that Mr. Colwell had passed away in his prison cell.

Mr. Colwell’s last contacts with the world outside of prison walls were his communications with University of Arkansas Professor Dustin Buehler and students (now graduates) Lauren Eldridge and Mason Boling, who had been his counsel in this matter.  Although Mr. Colwell now will never receive the full medical treatment to which he was entitled as a human being, he did know that his rights had been vindicated.  The justice system had confirmed that he did matter.

When we agreed to take on Mr. Colwell’s case in our pro bono clinic work, he had already lost in two venues.  The prison had denied him cataract surgery, despite his requests through the prison grievance system, and the District Court had granted summary judgment against his request to be treated for blindness in that eye.  Without the diligent work, attention to detail, command of the case-law, mastery of the factual record, and powerful briefs and arguments presented by the University of Arkansas team, that loss would have been the final word on his plea for help.  Thank God that it was not and that he lived to hear the final word.  As Dustin Buehler reminds us, “Lawyering can be such a powerful tool in the hands of those who are passionate enough and dedicated enough to use our craft for good.  Let us never forget that.”

As Lauren Eldridge said so eloquently after the passing of “Big John,” to his representatives, he was not a criminal confined to a cell, but a victim:  “We saw him for who he was at the time we came into his life and did what we could to help him.”  Big John Colwell’s epitaph should read, as he often would say to his appellate counsel, “I don't know the law, but I know what's right.”

October 10, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Overcriminalization: The Criminal Law Professors Brief

In conducting some last-minute update research on a forthcoming article (here) on the legal ethics of real evidence (and the potential use of obstruction of justice statutes to punish a lawyer for zealous representation of a criminal defendant), I came across the "Brief for Eighteen Criminal Law Professors as Amici Curiae" in the pending Supreme Court case of Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451.

Red grouper Epinephelus_morioYates is the case in which creative federal prosecutors applied the new "anti-shredding" provision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to prosecute a fisherman for anticipatory obstruction of justice because he tossed some under-size fish overboard (rather than bring them back to the dock) after a Florida fish and wildlife officer had cited him for a civil violation.

The statute punishes those who knowingly destroy or conceal “any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede an investigation within the jurisdiction of a federal agency.  In prosecuting the fisherman and now before the Supreme Court, the federal government argues that the three red grouper fish were a "tangible object."  The fisherman's lawyer, and the amicus brief above, argue that "tangible object" should be understood in the context of "record" and "document" to mean such things as hard-drives, flash-drives, computer diskettes, etc. which can record information.

What especially struck me about the brief, which was filed on behalf of a member (Rick Garnett) and several friends of the Mirror of Justice, was its powerful indictment of overcriminalization -- together with the sad decline of wise use of prosecutorial discretion.  Below is the key discussion of this matter from this thoughtful and well-written brief:

 

Today’s federal criminal code would be profoundly troubling to the Founders. As James Madison wrote in FEDERALIST NO. 62, “[i]t will be of little avail to the people * * * if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood[.]” Yet these words provide an apt description of today’s U.S. criminal code. As one commentator puts it, the federal criminal “code” is a “haphazard grabbag of statutes accumulated over 200 years”—it is “incomprehensible, random and incoherent, duplicative, ambiguous, incomplete, and organizationally nonsensical.” Julie O’Sullivan, The Federal Criminal “Code” is a National Disgrace: Obstruction Statutes as Case Study, 96 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 643, 643 (2006).

Neither prosecutors nor their targets can plumb the depths of this criminal law. Federal law addresses conduct ranging from unquestionably serious crimes (e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2381 (treason)), to trivial ones (e.g., id. § 711 (unauthorized reproduction of “Smokey Bear”)). As one well-known jurist has observed, “most Americans are criminals and don’t even know it.” Alex Kozinski & Misha Tseytlin, You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal, in IN THE NAME OF JUSTICE 43, 44–45 (Timothy Lynch ed., 2009).

To be sure, U.S. Attorneys cannot (and would not) enforce every one of these provisions every time it was violated. For those who do get prosecuted, however, the circumstances are grim. The vastness of the federal code and the breadth of myriad statutes provide the imaginative prosecutor with near-endless permutations of crimes to charge. Exercising prosecutorial discretion has evolved “from an exercise of wisdom to a selection of weaponry.” Robert Weisberg, Crime and Law: An American Tragedy, 125 HARV. L. REV. 1425, 1445 (2012).

 * * *

According to recent estimates, U.S. law contains 4,450 criminal provisions. . . . Now add to this expansive body of criminal statutes a mountain of federal criminal regulations. According to one estimate, there are now more than 300,000 federal regulations that may trigger criminal sanctions.

 Still worse, many of these regulatory offenses pro-scribe conduct that is malum prohibitumi.e., conduct that is wrong only because it is prohibited. Everyone knows that it is immoral to kill, rape, or steal. The same cannot be said, however, of importing non-veneered ebony wood from India, snowmobiling into a national forest in the midst of a blizzard, or saving a bird from the clutches of a hungry cat. Yet as Gibson Guitar Corp.[2] IndyCar champion Bobby Unsar,[3] and11-year-old Skylar Capo[4] found out, the Government has no qualms about prosecuting such behavior. As these heavy-handed prosecutions show, the vast ocean of regulatory crimes—including many offenses that are “wrongful only because [they are] illegal”—threatens to “allow punishment where ‘consciousness of wrongdoing be totally wanting.’” Stephen Smith, Overcoming Overcriminalization, 102 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 537, 538 (2012) (quoting United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 284 (1943)).

 2 See C. Jarrett Dieterle, Note, The Lacey Act: A Case Study in the Mechanics of Overcriminalization, 102 GEO. L.J. 1279, 1284–86 (2014) (summarizing the prosecution of Gibson Guitar Corp. under the Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371 et seq.).  

3 Reining in Overcriminalization: Hearing Before the Sub-comm. on Crime, Terrorism, & Homeland Sec. of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 111th Cong. 21–35 (2010) (statement of Robert “Bobby” Unser, detailing his prosecution under 16 U.S.C. § 551 and 36 C.F.R. § 261.16 for unintentionally entering a national forest with a snowmobile during a blizzard).

 4 Girl saves woodpecker, but her mom fined $535, CBS NEWS, Aug. 4, 2011, available at http://www.cbsnews.com /news/girl-saves-woodpecker-but-her-mom-fined-535/ (re-porting the citation of an 11-year-old child under the Migratory Bird Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 703 et seq., for saving an endangered woodpecker from being eaten by the family cat). The charges were dropped after an international outcry over the incident.

 In short, the ever-expanding breadth and redundancy of the federal statutory and regulatory crimi-nal “code” threatens to create, in the words of the late Bill Stuntz, “a world in which the law on the books makes everyone a felon.” William Stuntz, The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law, 100 MICH. L. REV. 505, 511 (2001).

September 11, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Greg Sisk's Novel: Marital Privilege (Now Available on Kindle and Nook)

A couple of months ago, I posted up a brief message on the publication of my first novel, Marital Privilege, by North Star Press.  I promised to post something more about it a few days later, but the summer got away from me, with launch party, book signings, distributions to incoming St. Thomas law students, and of course multiple other scholarly and professional projects.  But now is a good time for me to follow up, as the novel is now available on Kindle at Amazon and on the Nook at Barnes&Noble.

Marital_Privilege_front_cover_1024x1024The lead character in Marital Privilege is a law professor, and, while I should warn sensitive readers that the story begins with tragedy, the novel has themes of law, faith, and hope in the middle of tragedy.  A distinctly Catholic sensibility will be found throughout the story.

Here is the back cover description:

Candace Klein is one of the lucky ones in her professional life, finding genuine meaning in her work as a law professor. But her personal life is troubled by a growing distance from her husband, Bill, who languishes in a dead-end job working for her father.

Suffering the horrific loss of her child in a car bombing, Candace grieves and seeks solace in her faith. Then a politically-climbing prosecutor, Robby Sherburne, takes control of the criminal investigation and promises the death penalty for a child-killer. Meanwhile, Ed Burton, a suburban cop, simply tries to follow the evidence where it leads.

When her husband becomes the target of the investigation, Candace asserts the “marital privilege” and refuses to cooperate. This ultimately provokes a crisis of identity between her professional commitment to the justice system and her resolute loyalty to her husband.

More information about the novel can be found here.

August 19, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Second Court Victory in a Week for the Dignity of Prisoners (and for the University of St. Thomas and University of Arkansas Clinics)

For I was ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.  Matthew 25:36

A couple of days ago (here), I was delighted to report a victory for a prisoner’s right to confidentiality in correspondence with his attorney in a published Ninth Circuit decision (here).  Scott Nordstrom, a death row inmate whose legal mail was read when he was challenging his conviction, was represented by the University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic, which I supervise.

Just three days after that decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the human dignity of prisoners again in another case involving our UST Appellate Clinic, in which the lead was taken by our partners at the University of Arkansas Federal Litigation Project supervised by my colleague Professor Dustin Buehler and which was argued to the court by students (now graduates) Mason Boling and Lauren Murphy.

In Colwell v. Bannister (decision here), a prisoner who had suffered from blindness in one eye due to cataracts for a decade challenging the prison’s refusal to grant surgery despite the recommendations of his doctors.  Yesterday, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the Nevada Department of Corrections.

In words that speak eloquently to the fundamental dignity of all persons, including our neighbors held in prison, the Ninth Circuit held “that the blanket, categorical denial of medically indicated surgery solely on the basis of an administrative policy that ‘one eye is good enough for prison inmates’ is the paradigm of deliberate indifference.”

August 15, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Victory for Confidentiality in Prisoner Legal Correspondence With Lawyers: University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic

For I was in prison and you visited me.  (Matthew 25:36)

Prisoncellblock

As lawyers, we have the opportunity and means not only to follow Christ’s call to visit those in prison but to use our privileged access to the legal system to directly assist those in prison, by seeking to overturn wrongful convictions, by challenging unjust and excessive sentences, and by working to uphold the dignity of the “neighbor” who is subject to incarceration.

As lawyers who work regularly with prisoners are painfully aware, it is always an uphill battle to present a prisoner’s plea to a court.  But as a testament to the ever-present (if sometimes seemingly dormant) potential for genuine justice in our court system, a deserving prisoner does win one, at least once in a while.

So I am delighted to report a victory in the Ninth Circuit yesterday for the basic right of prisoners to correspond with their lawyers without such legal mail being read by prison officials — a success attributable to the persistence of a death row inmate, Scott Nordstrom, and to the legal representation we were able to provide him through the University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic.

Consistent with our Catholic social justice mission at the University of St. Thomas, we’ve established an Appellate Clinic in which I work with a team of students to provide pro bono representation to pro se parties in federal appellate litigation.  Over the past year, Michelle King and Joy Nissen Beitzel, now recent graduates of the law school, have been working with me on a case involving an Arizona death row inmate, Scott Nordstrom, who challenged the prison’s policy and practice of reading inmate correspondence with attorneys.  We were supported in this effort by our partners at the University of Arkansas Federal Appellate Litigation Project:  Professor Dustin Buehler and students Mason Boling and Lauren Murphy

Continue reading

August 12, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Friday, August 1, 2014

Divisive Words and Threats to Unity: Political and Cultural

The divisions that exist among us in the United States, in both political and cultural terms, and that seem to be widening and threatening our core unity as a nation, do reflect some fundamental differences of perspective and on principles of good governance and how best to enhance human thriving. Nonetheless, inflammatory accusations, name-calling, and hyperbolic rants add inestimably to that division. Especially worrisome is what appears to be the near-universal tendency to assume venality in the hearts of those on the other "side" of a partisan/political/ideological/cultural/religious divide. Peggy Noonan today in the Wall Street Journal, in her typically thoughtful and common-sense style, writes about the special responsibility of those in political leadership not to indulge in such rhetoric. Here is an excerpt:
No nation's unity, cohesion and feeling of being at peace with itself can be taken for granted, even ours. They have to be protected day by day, in part by what politicians say. They shouldn't be making it worse. They shouldn't make divisions deeper.
In just the past week that means:
The president shouldn't be using a fateful and divisive word like "impeachment" to raise money and rouse his base. He shouldn't be at campaign-type rallies where he speaks only to the base, he should be speaking to the country. He shouldn't be out there dropping his g's, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: "Stop just hatin' all the time." The House minority leader shouldn't be using the border crisis as a campaign prop, implying that Republicans would back Democratic proposals if only they were decent and kindly: "It's not just about having a heart. It's about having a soul." And, revealed this week, important government administrators like Lois Lerner shouldn't be able to operate within an agency culture so sick with partisanship that she felt free to refer to Republicans, using her government email account, as "crazies" and "—holes."
All this reflects a political culture of brute and mindless disdain, the kind of culture that makes divisions worse.
To call ourselves political leaders would be to flatter ourselves and over-estimate the influence of the Mirror of Justice. Nonetheless, we too need to be conscious of the effect that incivility in the "blogosphere" -- and especially the too easy attribution of malice and bad motives to others -- weakens the civil ties that can and should still bind us and that are necessary to any meaningful work toward the common good.

August 1, 2014 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink