People For the American Way

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump judge erodes the “reasonable doubt” requirement for a guilty verdict

News and Analysis
Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump judge erodes the “reasonable doubt” requirement for a guilty verdict

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

In January 2019, Trump judge Kevin Newsom of the Eleventh Circuit authored a 2-1 opinion in U.S. v. Munksgard upholding a felony criminal conviction even though the prosecution had failed to prove a key element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Newsom cast the deciding vote to allow this constitutional violation.

Because tyrannical governments misuse the criminal law to imprison people for illegitimate reasons, the Constitution requires prosecutors to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That requirement applies to every element of the crime. So when the United States charged Matthew Munksgard with making false statements in 2013 and 2014 in order to get a loan from an FDIC-insured bank, the prosecution had to prove that the bank was, in fact, FDIC-insured during that timeframe.

But all they did was show that the bank had been FDIC-insured in 1990 (when it was chartered) and in 2016 (at the time of the trial). For Judge Newsom, that was enough for a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that it had been FDIC-insured in 2013-2014, because there is (according to him) a “universal presumption” that a bank is so ensured.

But as Republican-nominated Judge Gerald Tjoflat pointed out in dissent, knowing the bank’s insurance status in 1990 and in 2016 does not tell us much about 2013 or 2014, because that status is up for renewal four times each year: It could have changed as many as eight times between the alleged crime and the trial. That is hardly proving its status “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In addition, the jury was instructed to only consider evidence presented in the trial, so they could not base their ruling on some “universal presumption.”

Judge Tjoflat correctly stated that:

if the majority’s statement of the law were correct, the government would be relieved of its duty to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. That would violate the Constitution.

Nevertheless, Judge Newsom was willing to erode this bedrock of our liberty.