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Judge Alexis G. Krot shouted at Burhan Chowdhury, a 72 year old cancer patient whom local police cited for not maintaining his yard. “If I could give you jail time on this I would,” the Michigan jurist warned Chowdhury.
A cancer diagnosis doesn’t buy much more leniency in other courtrooms. In 2020, a judge in Pennsylvania sentenced Ashley Menser, a 36 year old in need of a hysterectomy for ovarian and cervical cancer, to a 10 month term.
Chowdhury and Menser lucked out in that one didn’t lose his freedom and the other survived her prison bid.
But William Lamprecht wasn’t as fortunate. Sentenced to four months incarceration last September for his second DUI conviction (an incident where no one was hurt), Lamprecht took the drug Truxima for his cancer — follicular lymphoma. His treatment suppressed his immune system. Lamprecht contracted the coronavirus while in custody and died before he could go home.
Qualified immunity has taken the spotlight in discussions of police’s use deadly force but judicial immunity enables just as much lethality. For me, it doesn’t matter if someone dies at one end of a barrel of a gun or the barrel of a pen — if the person at the other end knows the risk of death, they’re committing a homicide.
Judicial immunity is a form of absolute immunity that originated in early seventeenth-century England in two cases heard in the infamous Star Chamber. The Star Chamber was a secret court that administered justice directly and arbitrarily. It was so abusive that the phrase “Star Chamber” has become a pejorative in jurisprudence and popular culture and yet the United States still embraces one of its rules.
The doctrine of judicial immunity wasn’t totally without merit; it assured that judgments would be final (because suing a judge could get him to change his mind in a case) and established judicial independence.
But the way it's evolved over the centuries, judicial immunity licenses judges to commit involuntary manslaughter and avoid any consequence — civil or criminal.
That’s an extreme statement but the elements of the crime of involuntary manslaughter — sometimes called negligent manslaughter — check out. Involuntary manslaughter happens when a perpetrator is aware of a risk of death associated with a certain decision but makes it anyway. Two years into the global crisis, the heightened risk of COVID in congregate living situations like prisons and to cancer patients — even ones in remission — has been established. Judges are aware. And they act anyway.
The pandemic put even more blood on judges’ hands. According to an analysis of new Bureau of Justice Statistics data published January 11 by criminal justice think tank the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of deaths rose 46 percent in prisons from 2019 to 2020 (jail deaths in 2020 have not yet been reported), increasing the likelihood that any sentence can become deadly.
A retired trial judge, one who wishes to remain anonymous, said in an email that judges know that they risk death to defendants when they sentence them. They simply “compartmentalize” that information and “stick to the law.”
Litigants implore judges to do just that, follow the law. But in so doing, they provide cover for these bad decisions; judges cite the fact that they’re only obeying a statute when they sentence defendants to death for non-capital crimes.
Connecticut Superior Court Judge Christopher Pelosi, the judge who sentenced Lamprecht, said during the proceeding that a mandatory minimum sentence tied his hands but that’s only partially true. Connecticut law placed the decision to postpone the sentencing hearing until the pandemic came more under control squarely within Pelosi’s discretion. He chose not to exercise it.
That’s rare. The usual avenue for judicial accountability is elections; constituents can yank janky judges by voting them out. That solution is limited though; trial court judges are elected in 20 states; the remaining 30 states have other procedures. Voters casting ballots for judges don’t know much about the candidates; sometimes they leave that part of the ballot blank when they vote in other races.
Modifying the doctrine of judicial immunity to allow civil liability for wrongful death of those in-custody deaths of people they sentenced might give judges some pause before they bang the gavel and sign the mittimus.
That people coming before these judges are both accused and guilty of breaking the law shouldn’t be part of the analysis here. Look at the offenses in these three cases: substandard gardening, shoplifting (Mesner did have what prosecutors called an “extensive prior criminal record”) and driving under the influence. Violations? Yes. Suicide? No.
To be clear, Judge Krot’s threat against the elderly respondent before her is just a part of the problem. Much of Chowdhury’s case typifies the perfidy of modern courts; having to attend a virtual court proceeding over a minor infraction is a common setup. Police issue summons and require a court date to resolve them and then the summoned party forgets the court date and is charged with failure to appear, a crime. People associate the unrest in Missouri in 2015 with the death of Michael Brown but much of that ire was fueled by the Ferguson Municipal courts issuance of 32,975 warrants like this in 2013. In a city of 21,135 people that amounted to 1.5 warrants per person.
Even though Judge Krot fined Chowdhury $100, there’s little financial incentive for these proceedings in Michigan; blight tickets don’t generate much fine revenue in the state.
It would be bad enough if fine revenue was the justification for Krot’s craziness.
But that the judge was just itching to incarcerate this cancer patient — an act that very easily could have precipitated his death — solely because she thinks his yard was messy shows how easy it is to kill people under color of law.
Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. She is now a weekly columnist for The National Memo.
America's political media — and especially our "punditocracy" — suffer from myriad defects. They love simple answers and often seem hostile to complexity. They tend to obsess slavishly over the latest polling data. And they suffer from a chronic amnesia that erases not only historical context but even very recent events from their narrow minds.
Marking the end of President Joe Biden's first year in office, the media consensus followed a predictable and familiar framing. After 12 months, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing, his legislative agenda incomplete and his approval ratings in steep decline, Biden was all but declared a failure — with no clear way forward.
That depiction of his presidency is no doubt puzzling to Biden because it omits so much of what has happened since his inauguration and almost everything that occurred in the four preceding years. Did Biden end the pandemic, with all its damaging effects on our economy and society? No, and neither could anyone else, least of all his predecessor. But he has done a great deal to ameliorate its worst effects — and has achieved that much against an ultra-partisan opposition willing to sacrifice the nation for its own advantage.
Let's first consider the obvious — or what ought to be obvious.
During the 2020 campaign, then-President Donald Trump warned that America would stumble into "a depression" if Biden won. That would have been worse than the economic conditions caused by Trump's erratic and sometimes ruinous policies, but things were already bad. High unemployment induced by the pandemic (and Trump's mishandling of it) showed no signs of abating quickly. Markets were in turmoil. Further decline appeared inevitable, and economists predicted that we wouldn't return to pre-pandemic levels of unemployment for several years.
Yet now we can see how wrong Trump was. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, employment and markets have smashed previous records repeatedly during the past year. And with a remarkable six million jobs created in a single year — a record high for any president in memory — those gloomy forecasts about post-pandemic recovery are in the dustbin. The economy is now effectively at full employment, with wages rising rapidly for the first time in decades.
A significant drag on those wage increases is inflation, which the Biden White House underestimated initially. But supply chain woes and price hikes are a global problem, not a consequence of Biden policies — while America's astonishing growth is unmatched elsewhere in the world.
Both the national economy and the conditions of life in America would be far better if Biden didn't face concerted resistance to his vaccination campaign and other efforts to defeat the pandemic. Republican officials and media figures who are themselves vaccinated have cynically — even monstrously — discouraged their constituencies from getting the jab. Evidently, they are willing to accept mass death so they can blame it on Biden. Nevertheless, the administration has succeeded in inoculating over 200 million Americans and saved many of them from a painful, untimely death. If Trump were still president, many more would be dead.
Voters who profess to be "disappointed" with Biden might try harder to recall the horror of the administration he ousted, in a hard-fought campaign that Trump and his minions refuse to concede to this day. Unlike Trump, who accomplished so little of value during four years despite his party's complete domination of Congress when he entered the White House, Biden passed the historic infrastructure program that had been promised — and got 20 Republican senators to vote for it.
Although no Democrat could have restored the "normal" political order that Trump and his Republicans have so eagerly destroyed in a single year, Biden has worked hard to uphold standards we once took for granted. He has ousted the gang of crooked and unethical officials Trump appointed and ended the abuse of basic government functions like the census. Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will release their tax returns this year, because unlike Trump, they have nothing unsavory to conceal.
"Unlike Trump" is what matters most in this era of peril to the republic and the world. That's the real choice, rather than measuring this president against some impossible wishlist. Biden could hardly be more unlike Trump than he is — and we are more secure and prosperous thanks to him.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.