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Supreme Court Appeals: Enron Chief’s Heard, Gitmo Uighurs’ Dismissed

March 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner talks to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal about former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling's appeal to the Supreme Court and the dismissal of a challenge brought by Chinese detainees at Guantanamo.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: two appeals at the Supreme Court today. One was dismissed, and arguments were heard in the other.

Margaret Warner gets the details.

MARGARET WARNER: The dismissal came this morning in a challenge brought by 17 Chinese Uighur detainees at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release and wanted to settle in the U.S.

The appeal, heard this afternoon, came in a case brought by former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. He’s challenging his 2008 conviction and prison sentence on fraud charges stemming from the energy giant’s collapse.

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was at the court today, and she joins us now.

Marcia, welcome back.

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with the Uighur case, which they dispatched with pretty quickly. This long-awaited case, they were set to hear it this month. Suddenly, they send it back to the lower court.

Why? And what is the significance of this?

MARCIA COYLE: The Uighurs, the court said in an unsigned opinion, a very brief opinion, their situation had changed since they first took their case to the Supreme Court.

The court pointed out that all of them had been offered resettlement options. Some were taken. Some were not. But the facts had changed enough that the court felt that the lower court ought to take a fresh look at it.

MARGARET WARNER: And I misspoke, because it is seven detainees…

MARCIA COYLE: It is seven, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: … not 17. And these had all been captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

MARCIA COYLE: And found not to be enemy combatants or a threat to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does this, today’s ruling, though, or decision, mean for all the other Guantanamo detainees, some of whom have been cleared for release, but haven’t been?

MARCIA COYLE: It really leaves them in something of legal limbo.

What the court did today that was very significant was, it vacated, voided the lower court’s decision in the Uighurs case, which said that federal judges didn’t have the authority to order the release of Gitmo detainees into the United States.

By voiding that decision, we really don’t know what the answer is to what federal judges can do if a detainee shows that he’s being held unlawfully. So, the case, the issue, might welcome back to the Supreme Court at a later date.

MARGARET WARNER: But all this stems from the fact that, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that Gitmo detainee do have the right to challenge their detention in federal court.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. And there have been dozens who have filed petitions with the federal court in Washington, D.C. And so the issue remains, they have this right until the 2008 decision, but what is the remedy?

MARGARET WARNER: What is the remedy?

Now, the Skilling case, those were the arguments this afternoon. From what I understand — and had several grounds in which he’s challenging his conviction — but he — most of the argument today, I gather, centered on his argument that he couldn’t get a fair trial in his hometown, Enron’s hometown of Houston.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct, Margaret. That was the first issue. Second issue had to do with the law under which he was convicted.

Most of the argument focused, Skilling’s lawyer told the court that many, many individuals, countless individuals, in Houston were affected by the Enron collapse, and passions in the community were intense, that — such that the trial court could not find a fair and impartial jury.

MARGARET WARNER: And there was great focus, though, was there not, on how the judge in the case went about letting the jury panel be selected.

MARCIA COYLE: Mr. Skilling’s attorney, Sri Srinivasan, he argued that, even if the case had not been transferred out of Houston, more was…

MARGARET WARNER: Which was what he wanted.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, exactly…

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

MARCIA COYLE: … change of venue, as we call it — more was needed to be done in selecting a fair and impartial jury.

He said, here, the judge erred in two ways, the time spent in selecting the jury — jury selection took five hours — and also the scope of how to choose the questioning of potential jurors. He said the judge accepted assurances that a potential juror would be fair, even when there were overt statements of bias by potential jurors.

This triggered, you know, some skepticism by the justices. Justice Ginsburg, for example, she said she didn’t know that there was any mandatory rule that you had to change the jury location — the trial location when money was involved, that was the charge, and not life or limb was the charge.

And Mr. Srinivasan said that people in Houston viewed this almost as akin to terrorist attacks. It was that serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what did the attorneys for the government argue?

MARCIA COYLE: The government was represented by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben.

And he said, this trial judge, he had 15 years experience in selecting jurors, that he understood and didn’t ignore the impact of the collapse in Houston, and that he devised a very thorough questionnaire, and then he made credibility determinations, eyeball-to-eyeball, when potential jurors answered questions as to whether they could be fair.

Justice Breyer, for example, he said he was — he was worried here, because there were examples of potential jurors who — who voiced bias, and the judge didn’t seem to think they should be immediately challenged or excused.

And Mr. Dreeben said, look, people come to court with opinions. And it’s up to the judge to first tell them about the presumption of innocence and then to make credibility determinations. That’s the judge. That’s the job of the judge. And the judge did it here.

MARGARET WARNER: And, then, finally, Skilling did have another argument, didn’t he, that the law under which he was convicted was unconstitutionally vague?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

This is a law that makes it a crime to deprive your — your employer of the right to your honest services. And it’s become a very important tool of the government in prosecutions of public corruption and, in this case, financial fraud.

And, here, Mr. Skilling’s attorney was saying, this is the kind of law where any kind of lie in the workplace could become the focus of a criminal prosecution. The government, on the other hand, is saying, this isn’t any kind of a lie. A CEO of a company owes a duty of loyalty to the shareholders, and Mr. Skilling violated that duty.

MARGARET WARNER: In part because he lied — or is accused of having lied about the condition of the company…

MARCIA COYLE: The condition of Enron.

MARGARET WARNER: … and also made some very profitable stock sales.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: And the court has already heard two other cases, right, on this particular law.

MARCIA COYLE: It has.

And I think the fact that the court has taken three cases this term that challenge aspects of this law, I think it shows and the arguments showed today that there are a number of justices who are skeptical of how broadly the government has used this prosecution tool.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if they didn’t talk about it a lot today.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: Marcia, thank you — Marcia Coyle, “National Law Journal.”

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Margaret.