Fordham Law

Stein Center Files Amicus Brief in Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Case

March 27, 2013

The Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics and Professor Bruce Green, who occupies the Louis Stein Chair and directs the Stein Center, have collaborated with four other law school ethics centers and with other legal ethics professors and practitioners to file an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Davila. The brief, prepared by Jones Day with Professor Green’s assistance, addresses a prior ruling made by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Respondent Anthony Davila pled guilty to a federal tax charge but the appellate court overturned his conviction, finding that the federal magistrate judge improperly participated in plea negotiations. In the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department of Justice now argues that, because Davila never objected to the magistrate judge’s conduct, Davila’s conviction should not have been set aside without a finding that the conduct prejudiced Davila by causing him to plead guilty.

The magistrate judge’s conduct occurred in an ex parte hearing to address Davila’s dissatisfaction with his court-appointed attorney, who, according to Davila, refused to provide him with any legal options other than to enter a guilty plea in the case against him. The magistrate judge denied Davila’s request for new counsel, then informed Davila that his only other option would be to proceed pro se, a decision the magistrate judge insinuated would only end with Davila serving a longer prison term.

The magistrate judge’s comments about the advisability of a guilty plea, and specifically his urging that the defendant “go to the cross” and “tell it all” by confessing to the government, are the conduct at the heart of the amicus brief. The brief maintains that the magistrate judge’s words were inherently coercive, especially in their use of religious imagery, and constituted a clear departure from the neutral judicial role charged to him.  The amicus brief addresses the federal appellate court’s “supervisory authority” to establish and enforce standards of judicial conduct in federal criminal cases. It asserts that the appellate court properly exercised this authority by reversing Davila’s conviction without an inquiry into whether Davila was prejudiced—an inquiry that the brief says would be burdensome and intrusive.  

The Stein Center has served as an amicus (friend of the Court) in a dozen cases over the past 15 years, primarily in the U.S. Supreme Court, on issues of legal and judicial ethics and other issues important to the legal profession.

“Amicus briefs like these allow the scholarship of Fordham Law professors to have important, practical application in the the sound development of the law and legal institutions,” said Sheila R. Foster, Vice Dean and Co-Director of the Stein Center.

Read the brief (PDF).