Wednesday, March 15, 2006

U.S. v. Perlaza (9th Cir. - March 14, 2006)

You can't do this. I'm sorry, but it's just not right.

I'll say the good thing first. This is a fine opinion by Judge Pregerson. It reads really well; indeed, it's almost like a novel, and -- especially the factual discussion -- definitely keeps you flipping pages. If you ever want to read an interesting story about federal drug interdiction on the high seas, as well as how cocaine gets from Columbia to central Mexico, this is clearly the opinion for you. I'm being totally sincere when I say that I know a lot, lot more about the use of go-fast boats, logistical support vessels ("LSVs"), and the Navy and Coast Guard's efforts in Eastern Pacific after reading this opinion than I did beforehand.

Plus, as an added bonus, the opinion reads like a drama, and takes you step-by-step into the fascinating story of the Columbian "fishing vessel" Gran Tauro, the Navy frigate USS De Wert, and a variety of other associated actors in this saga. The first eight to ten pages of the opinion really are interesting. Finally, on the merits, the opinion reads like a good law review article: scholarly, expansive, analytical, and seemingly right. Sure, like most law review articles, it's also probably too long: the majority opinion alone tops out at almost 60 single-spaced pages. But that's because Judge Pregerson is being very comprehensive, and that's not always a bad thing. What I'm trying to say is this: There's a lot here to recommend the opinion.

Here's the thing. You cannot -- cannot -- take over two years to issue an opinion in a criminal case. That's simply unacceptable. Especially when, as here, you're reversing a conviction, and particularly when -- again, as here -- the case involves a dozen different defendants, all of whom have been in prison during the period in which you've been pondering at length) what to do with them.

These dozen defendants were convicted in 2001. They filed their appeals in 2002. They've been in prison now for a long, long time.

The case was argued and submitted in February 23, 2004. The opinion was issued over two years later, on March 14, 2006. You simply can't do this. And the fact that it's a long opinion is no excuse. This didn't have to be a scholarly, 60-page law review article. The case could have been resolved much, much more cleanly. And even if a 60-page law review article is required, that shouldn't take over two years. Even actual articles don't take that long, and they don't have big factual fillers, briefs that point out which way to go, and involve merely straightforward legal doctrine. You've got to -- got to -- get out the opinion earlier. There's simply no excuse.

One more bad thing. This time about Judge Brunetti -- who dissents -- rather than Judge Pregerson. (Now, I know, we're in truth talking about the relevant clerks, not the judges. But, still, as well all know, the principal is responsible for its agents, and the judge accordingly gets all the blame as well as the credit.)

Please do not simply minimally revise your bench memorandum to create a dissent. When you do so, it reads poorly, and looks bad. Judge Brunetti's dissent is a classic example of this error, and -- even after a 60-page majority opinion -- includes lengthy sections like "Proceedings Below" that are both utterly unnecessary and entirely duplicative of the undisputed background already articulated by the majority. Indeed, some of the sentences in the dissent are virtually verbatim from the majority opinion; presumably, since both came from the bench memo. Yes, I'm sure it's easier just to minimally rework the memo. And yes, maybe at this point, you don't care all that much. But put in the effort. It's not that hard. And not doing so looks bad.

Definitely some things to like here. But a lot of things that not to like as well.