Protect Democracy Files Amicus Brief on President Trump’s Interference in Death Penalty Charging Decision

  • September 24, 2018

Protect Democracy filed an amicus brief in the criminal case of Sayfullo Saipov, who is charged with murder and terror-related charges for driving a truck into a crowd in New York City. Shortly after the attack, President Trump tweeted that Mr. Saipov “SHOULD GET [THE] DEATH PENALTY!” Earlier this month, Mr. Saipov filed a motion with the court in his criminal case asking that the government be barred from seeking the death penalty against Mr. Saipov because of the President’s tweets.

Protect Democracy’s brief is filed on behalf of neither party and takes no position on the merits of Mr. Saipov’s case. The brief argues that President Trump’s Twitter proclamations regarding the case may have been unlawful because they could violate constitutional prohibitions on presidential interference in individual charging decisions. Contrary to the President’s assertions, he does not have the “absolute right to do what [he] want[s] with the Justice Department.” The President’s involvement with individual criminal cases — including making statements about the cases on Twitter — raises serious constitutional concerns, including a risk of irregular processes; political favoritism; and vindictive, arbitrary, and unequal justice.

President Trump has recognized this important principle when he’s been a defendant. As he argued to a New York court just last month, “fundamental fairness” requires that “criminal enforcement powers should be wielded in a rigorously disinterested fashion.” Therefore, as President Trump explained, it is critical that “those wielding the power of the state” be “independent[:] free from political motivations, political consequences, public opinions, . .  . fear or favoritism” in order to avoid “discourag[ing] public confidence in our government and the system of law to which it is dedicated.”

Protect Democracy’s brief also points out that when presidents intervene in individual cases, it risks undermining the equal application of the law. For example, while the President publicly called for the death penalty for Mr. Saipov, he did not issue similar statements when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring more.

For these reasons, presidents have historically stayed out of Department of Justice decision-making about individual criminal cases. Indeed, this is a line that not even President Nixon—not normally known for his narrow view of presidential prerogatives—was willing to cross. After accidentally asserting during Charles Manson’s trial that Manson “was guilty,” the president issued a retraction shortly thereafter that “the last thing I would do is prejudice the legal rights of any person, in any circumstances . . . . All of the facts in the case have not yet been presented. The defendants should be presumed to be innocent at this stage of their trial.” That’s true today, just as it was in 1970.

In its brief, Protect Democracy urges the Court to allow for investigation into the President’s role in the Justice Department’s decision-making regarding Mr. Saipov’s case. If the Court should find that the President improperly influenced the Department’s decisions, the brief asks the Court to remedy the resulting constitutional violations.

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