One of the problems with political discourse grows out of specialization–as the world around us gets more and more complicated, people who are experts in different fields, who use different vocabularies and operate from within different conceptual frameworks have trouble communicating with each other and with the public.
This “silo-ing” can be frustrating, and it’s made worse by the unnecessary use of jargon. But a lot of it is inevitable. I can’t follow the more detailed statistical analyses of my economics colleagues, or the computations that support climate science, or the medical terminology my doctor uses.
Similarly, very few Americans follow legal matters that are more complex than an episode of “Law and Order.” That’s why a case currently pending before the Supreme Court has gotten very little attention, despite its potential consequences. The case is Gamble v. United States.
Gamble addresses a fairly arcane area of constitutional jurisprudence: the dual-sovereignty doctrine. That’s a 150-year-old exception to the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition of double-jeopardy. In plain English, the doctrine allows state and federal courts to prosecute the same person for the same criminal offense.
And why, you are asking yourselves, should you give a rat’s patootie about that?
Within the context of the Mueller probe, legal observers have seen the dual-sovereignty doctrine as a check on President Donald Trump’s power: It could discourage him from trying to shut down the Mueller investigation or pardon anyone caught up in the probe, because the pardon wouldn’t be applied to state charges. Under settled law, if Trump were to pardon his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for example—he was convicted last month in federal court on eight counts of tax and bank fraud—both New York and Virginia state prosecutors could still charge him for any crimes that violated their respective laws. (Both states have a double-jeopardy law that bars secondary state prosecutions for committing “the same act,” but there are important exceptions, as the Fordham University School of Law professor Jed Shugerman has noted.)
If the dual-sovereignty doctrine were to be tossed, then Trump’s pardon could theoretically protect Manafort from state action.
Senator Orrin Hatch has submitted a brief in the case, arguing that the doctrine should be invalidated, although he claims the Mueller investigation has nothing to do with it. (Pardon me while I snicker….)
Here’s the analysis: If Trump shuts down the Russia investigation, Mueller could “farm out” cases to state-level attorneys general. Those AGs can’t be shut down by Trump and they can, within some limits, charge people with state crimes, even after those people have received a federal pardon. If the dual-sovereignty doctrine is invalidated, however, a federal pardon would essentially block a subsequent state-level prosecution.
The original issues in the case had nothing to do with the Russia investigation; it began as a relatively arcane argument about how federalism should work. And Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the conservative R Street Institute thinks it may not have the effect that Orrin Hatch evidently thinks it will.
Trump’s pardon power is “explicitly limited in the text of the Constitution to pardons for ‘offenses against the United States,’” Rosenzweig said. If that language is interpreted to mean federal criminal offenses specifically, a Trump pardon wouldn’t protect against a state criminal prosecution, he said, no matter what happens to the double-jeopardy clause in Gamble.
If that Constitutional language is interpreted that way. But it probably won’t be, if Brett Kavanaugh–or someone like him– is on the Court.
That’s one example of why judicial philosophy–and appointments to the Court– matter a lot more than many people think.