Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Charles M. Miller: Another Trumpet

Sometimes it is the most unlikely of persons that affect history. Such a person was Clarence Earl Gideon, another such person is Ignacio Flores-Figueroa.

By all accounts, Clarence Earl Gideon was a drifter with a long history of petty criminal convictions. Gideon was convicted of the 1961 burglary of the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida, based on a tip that he was seen leaving the pool room in the early morning with bulging pockets and a pint of wine. When he was tried for the crime, Gideon asked for, and was refused appointed counsel. After representing himself, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to a five year prison sentence. From his Florida prison cell he applied for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court raising the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel. That right to appointed counsel was confirmed by Justice Hugo Black writing for the majority in Gideon v. Wainwright. Gideon was later retried and acquitted. Gideon v. Wainwright is credited with expanding the need for the public defender system and widening the right to appointed counsel. In a subsequent case, Miranda v. Arizona, the Warren Court found the right to appointed counsel extended to a criminal police interrogation.
Generations of law students, many of them future public defenders, were inspired by GIDEON'S TRUMPET, a 1964 book by New York Times’ legal reporter Anthony Lewis, describing the story behind Gideon v. Wainwright.

In 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy remarked about the Gideon case: "If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed."

The second unlikely subject of a historical U.S. Supreme Court case, Ignacio Flores-Figueroa is a Mexican citizen who had worked illegally for an Illinois steel plant. In 2000, Flores provided the steel plant with a false name and false Social Security number. In 2006, he told his employer that he wanted to be known by his real name and presented counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards that showed his real name, but the numbers on both cards were assigned to other persons.

Flores’ employer reported the name change request to the U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE discovered that the numbers on Flores’ new documents belonged to other people and charged him with aggravated identity theft. He was convicted and sentenced to the additional two years mandated by the law.

Flores’ case arrived at the Supreme Court the same way Gideon’s did, upon a grant of a writ of Certiorari. Justice Breyer’s decision for the 9-0 Supreme Court emphasized that the plain English of the aggravated identity theft statute required specific intent to knowingly use the identity of another person. In Flores’ case the Government could not prove that he knew that the documents’ numbers were assigned to other people.

The ultimate historical effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Flores-Figueroa v. United States will be written later. It is clear that the estimated 8-12 millions of persons that are working in the shadows of the United States’ economy may never need to face aggravated identity theft charges because the undivided Roberts Supreme Court found the need for specific intent for such a conviction.

Millions of persons live in the U.S. without current legal status. Historians may find that the root causes of our country’s immigration problems are found in the legal immigration system. Its disrepair and disequilibrium may well be a major cause of our immigration failures.

The Obama administration has signaled that it will ask Congress to look to comprehensive immigration reform as a means to legally introduce millions of workers into the tax and entitlement systems. If the failed 2007 immigration reform efforts are any indication, there will be broad issues of disagreement as to the legalization of existing workers, border security and worksite verification responsibilities.

Nevertheless, a unanimous Supreme Court found that the Government failed to prove that Ignacio Flores-Figueroa knew that the Social Security and Alien Registration numbers he used belonged to other people. Millions of persons, like Flores-Figueroa, should not be considered aggravated identity theft felons for the reasons found by Justice Breyer. The Government may try to deport Ignacio Flores-Figueroa after he is released from federal prison in Georgia. But like Clarence Earl Gideon, his Supreme Court case will surely affect how millions of other persons are treated by the legal system. In that respect, both men changed legal history.