The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ended the two-and-a-half year ordeal of a local federal public defender last month. Ruling unanimously, the three-judge panel repaired the harm done unnecessarily and recklessly to the reputation of Debra Migdal.
A sense of disbelief pervades the ruling, written by Judge Jane Stranch, the unwritten question hovering: Have we really been asked to do this?
Consider that the ruling begins: “An attorney’s reputation is her most valuable possession. It forms the basis for her peers’ view of her and plays an important role — often a determinative one — in how she advances in her career.” In other words, treat such reputations with much care.
A sentence later, the ruling holds that federal Judge John Adams “erroneously” reprimanded Migdal. The appeals court reversed, vacated and dismissed the public sanctions the judge imposed because “the record does not support any basis” for his actions.
The ruling concludes, 25 pages later: “This opinion closes the book on a regrettable chapter in Debra Migdal’s career, clears her of all claims that her conduct in this matter was sanctionable and removes any taint of public censure on her reputation.” How did things get to this point, an appeals court clearly, forcefully and patiently cleaning up after Judge Adams?
In 2011, Migdal represented a man charged with smuggling illegal immigrants. She issued subpoenas seeking materials for his defense. An assistant U.S. attorney moved to quash a subpoena directed to the U.S. Border Control. He also requested that Judge Adams impose sanctions deemed appropriate.
Soon, the U.S. attorney’s office informed the court that the pursuit of sanctions was unauthorized. It withdrew the request. Yet Judge Adams pushed forward, anyway, eventually, via two hearings extending into the next year, ordering a public reprimand.
Adams cited his authority to sanction an attorney who “unreasonably and vexatiously” disrupts or extends court proceedings. He accused Migdal of fabricating a hearing date and time in issuing the subpoenas. He charged that she ignored rules of criminal procedure, playing “fast and loose with the court’s schedule,” acting deliberately and with “flagrant disregard.”
Adams concluded that Migdal’s actions “cannot be described as anything less than intentional acts performed in bad faith.”
Bad faith, as the appeals court stresses, is the required element in applying sanctions. At one turn, it describes the record as “barren” of bad faith on the part of Migdal.
The ruling dismantles the basis for the sanctions. For starters, it explains that Adams lacked authority under the law he cited. His misapplied the law, or what he so sharply accused others of doing. The ruling shows that Migdal did not violate procedures. Rather, the district courts have subtle variations in the issuing of subpoenas. She followed one course well accepted in the northern district of Ohio.
Did she fabricate a hearing day and time? Not really. Again, the appeals court reasons that she followed a common practice, with the aim of working within the trial timeline set by the judge.
Sense this all got blown out of proportion? Disagreements over procedures are expected. What the appeals court stresses is that Migdal did not act in bad faith. Actually, she tried to do the right thing.
Striking, too, is how the adversaries ended up on the same side, the U.S. attorney’s office telling Adams that it did not think Migdal acted in bad faith.
This disheartening episode was driven by the judge, Adams, as the appeals court put it, “branding a blemish on Migdal’s reputation” for no good reason, putting her through no small amount of anguish about a matter that should have been resolved easily.
And to think Steve Bell was denied a seat on the federal bench because some deemed that he lacked a judicial temperament.
Note the echo of another case on the judge’s docket, the long tussle between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city of Akron concerning overflows of the combined sewer system. The adversaries have come together, pleading with the judge to be reasonable. They have had to cope with his seeming penchant to see the worst. Akron leaped to take an alternative course last week largely to escape his courtroom.
Who is vexatious?
Adams pushed the EPA and the city to adopt a better cleanup plan. Yet, two years later, he has not signed the consent decree, or accepted “yes” for an answer. Talk about spreading distress, annoyance and harassment, losing sight, as in the Migdal case, of what matters. The combined sewers are as much a political problem, requiring a balancing of priorities.
When my father found something astonishing, he would declare: “It’s so unbelievable, it’s unbelievable!” Sometimes it is.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.