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May 12, 2011

The "district courts are not haberdasheries or money lenders" and its judges "are not like the supercomputer Watson"

The pearls of wisdom in the title of this post and lots of others can be found in a Sixth Circuit ruling yesterday in US v. Williams, No. 09-5256 (6th Cir. May 11, 2011) (available here).  And beyond these two amusing comments from the opinions in Williams, the case also covers some important legal ground.  The opinion for the court, for example, has the Sixth Circuit expressly join three other circuits in holding that "a district court may not conduct a sentencing hearing by video conference."  Here is part of the justification for this ruling:

The text of Rule 43 does not allow video conferencing.  The structure of the Rule does not support it.  As our sister circuits have recognized, and anyone who has used video conferencing software is aware, “virtual reality is rarely a substitute for actual presence.” Lawrence, 248 F.3d at 303.  While an individual may determine that the benefits of not having to travel outweigh the costs of having a meeting by video conference, we do not, and cannot, perform such a balancing with a criminal defendant’s rights.  Until such time as the drafters of the Rule instruct us otherwise, district courts may not conduct sentencing hearings by video conference.

In addition, Judge Thapur adds a thoughtful and extensive concurring opinion in order "to express [his] concern with a rule adopted in [the] circuits that allows parties to unilaterally waive plain error review."  Consequently, if you are interested in sentencing or appellate procedure (or just want to see the context for the quotes in the title of this post), be sure to give Williams a read. 

May 12, 2011 at 01:49 PM | Permalink


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The district judge who was overruled in Williams is Bernice Donald, a current nominee to the Sixth Circuit if I recall correctly.

Posted by: ALB | May 12, 2011 2:17:49 PM

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