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February 21, 2008

How might a private prison exec sentence as a federal judge?

Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this intriguing article from Mother Jones magazine, which is headlined "Meet Bush's Prison Nominee: Tennessee's next trial court judge might be a prison company executive who has less courtroom experience than most inmates."   Here is a snippet:

[Federal judge nominee Gustavus Adolphus] Puryear has spent the bulk of his legal career at the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company. As its general counsel since 2001, Puryear has made millions of dollars working for a company that profits from the country's incarceration boom, particularly through his recent sale of more than $3 million worth of the company's stock. (His financial disclosure form shows a net worth of more than $13 million.)

His employer creates enormous conflicts for Puryear as a potential federal judge, as the CCA gets sued all the time, often in the very district where he hopes to preside as judge. Since 2000, roughly 260 cases have been filed in that court against the CCA, its officers, and subsidiaries. In addition, Puryear's current job involves overseeing the CCA's defense against inmate litigation, a prison staple that he has publicly dismissed as a nuisance, even though such litigation has led to significant verdicts and settlements against the company.  For instance, in 2000, a South Carolina jury hit the CCA with a $3 million verdict for abusing juveniles. Other successful suits have alleged that the company's employees abused inmates and provided negligent medical care.  Yet in a quote he no doubt now regrets, in 2004 Puryear said that, "Litigation is an outlet for inmates. It's something they can do in their spare time."

Inmate lawsuits typically account for more than 10 percent of the docket in Tennessee's Middle District, meaning that Puryear will see his share of them if he gets confirmed. During his confirmation hearing last week, Puryear told the committee that he would recuse himself from any cases involving the CCA—at least, he said, for some time after he's divested all of his stock in the company. He dismissed concerns about his conflict of interest by noting that the CCA cases make up a small part of the court's workload and that his recusals would not create problems for the other judges.

But his promises to recuse still don't get to the heart of a fundamental conflict: To the CCA, inmates are a revenue stream warehoused at the cheapest price. This not exactly the view of the criminal justice system you want from a judge if you are a defendant. A trial court judge in Tennessee's Middle District can expect to handle more than 60 criminal cases a year.  Every person Puryear sends to prison is a potential money-maker for his former employer, which contracts with the federal government to manage 15 detention facilities, and also holds federal prisoners in other CCA institutions that house state and local prisoners when the need arises, according to Steve Owen, the company's director of marketing and communications. The number of inmates coming from Tennessee may be relatively small, but still, it seems fair to ask whether Puryear's conflict of interest runs so deep that he might have to recuse himself from criminal cases entirely.

UPDATE:  This new AP piece, headlined "Ex-Inmate Crusades Against Judge Nominee," add more wrinkles to this very interesting story: "A private prison company executive nominated to become a federal judge has run into a determined opponent — a former inmate."  The story also links to this notable website, titled "Tennesseans Against Gus Puryear."

February 21, 2008 at 07:28 AM | Permalink

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Comments

And Doug, I assume that you call for Justice Ginsburg to recuse herself every time there's a case involving the ACLU . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Feb 21, 2008 9:59:39 AM

Federalist,

The professor isn’t necessarily adopting the position stated in MJ magazine.

Secondly, if the ACLU was sued (or sued) in its corporate capacity and it somehow made it to the Supreme Court, I think RBG probably would recuse herself. But these cases would involve, say, someone slipping and falling or a tax issue (which the ACLU might conceivable have). However, there is probably no obligation to recuse when the ACLU sues on behalf of its members unless RBG was actually one of the named members or otherwise a witness.

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 21, 2008 10:22:17 AM

Is it common for former prosecutors and defense attorneys to become Federal judges?

At a minimum, it does seem reasonable to ask if he will cut all ties to his current job -- by unloading all his stock and options, for instance.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Feb 21, 2008 11:10:30 AM

If you noticed the headline to the post, federalist, I am inclined to expect that Gus Puryear will become a federal judge. And, for lots of reasons, I think he might well be significantly more engaged and thoughtful in his sentencing decision than other federal judges who've never had any significant criminal justice experience (like, for example, Chief Justice Roberts).

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 21, 2008 11:23:30 AM

Ok, professor. I didn't see you identifying your own point of view in the post.

S.cotus, I know that RBG is not required to recuse.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 21, 2008 12:10:49 PM

The most preposterous part is the fact that Puryear evidently has never really been an in-court litigator. I can see that sort of person being appointed to an appellate court, but district judges have to make so many on-the-spot calls about evidence and trial procedure that it's preposterous to put someone in that job who hasn't spent serious time not just pushing paper but actually appearing in-court.

Posted by: dcuser | Feb 26, 2008 10:29:19 AM

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