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Ex-judges, attorneys oppose government in prosecutorial misconduct case

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 8:37 PM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prosecutorial misconduct case involving Miami doctor appealed to U.S. Supreme Court
  • A group of former judges and prosecutors side with the doctor
  • The U.S. Justice Department supports an appeals court ruling throwing out the doctor's case
  • A federal judge awarded the doctor almost $602,000 in the misconduct case

Washington (CNN) -- A coalition of nearly 70 former federal prosecutors and judges has publicly opposed their former boss, the U.S. government, in a dispute over prosecutorial misconduct.

At issue is when defendants cleared of wrongdoing can sue the U.S. Justice Department for "bad faith" acts that taint the integrity of the judicial system. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to take up the appeal.

A federal judge had awarded Ali Shaygan nearly $602,000 in damages and fees after a jury acquitted the Miami doctor on charges relating to the fatal drug overdose of a patient.

Shaygan later claimed two assistant U.S. attorneys and a DEA agent "acted vexatiously" after the original indictment was filed. Judge Alan Gold concluded, among other things, prosecutors violated disclosure requirements by withholding information from the defendant and the court and by launching a separate "tactical" effort to disqualify the doctor's attorney just before the trial was to begin.

Gold called the government's conduct "profoundly disturbing," raising "troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute."

A federal appeals court in Atlanta eventually threw out the lawsuit, saying the trial judge overreached, and that the overall prosecution and allegations on the original indictment were "objectively valid." The Justice Department is now expected to ask the justices to dismiss the appeal.

A federal law known as the Hyde Amendment allows for damages, including attorney's fees, when a court determines the entire government's "position of the United States was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith."

The narrow scope of the law has made it generally difficult for defendants to recoup the costs of botched federal criminal prosecutions by the government.

But the group of onetime prosecutors and judges opposing the government on Thursday filed a so-called "amicus" legal brief backing the doctor, saying in this case the damages award was appropriate.

"The amici are deeply concerned that the Eleventh Circuit's decision will allow serious prosecutorial misconduct to be excused and, in so doing, will undermine public confidence in our system of justice," said attorney Thomas Goldstein, representing the legal coalition.

"If allowed to stand, the [appeals court's] holding will disempower district judges, and send a clear signal that even grave prosecutorial misconduct will generally be overlooked, given the relatively lax standards for instituting federal prosecutions," he added.

It is somewhat unusual for this large a group of onetime federal prosecutors and judges to come together and strongly oppose the Justice Department's actions in a criminal case.

Shaygan is also being supported by other groups, including the Constitution Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The Obama administration has not yet formally reacted to the original appeal by Shaygan or the supporting parties. Government appellate lawyers have until September 10 to file their official response.

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