“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Fifth Circuit judge Amul Thapar cast the deciding vote to approve a district court’s denial of a compassionate release request from a prisoner with COVID-19, even though the denial was based on a form order with no specific explanation. The August 2021 case is US v Ector, 2021 U.S. App. Lexis 25415 (6th Cir. Aug. 24, 2021).
Lonald Ector is currently serving a ten-year sentence for possession and distribution of drugs. After he had served for over three years, he filed a motion seeking compassionate release and home confinement because he had contracted COVID-19 which, when combined with his diabetes, high blood pressure, and atrial fibrillation, posed a “risk of severe harm” that was an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for his request. The district court denied the motion using a “form order” of “one sentence” that recited that it had undertaken a “complete review,” but without any specifics. Acting on his own without an attorney, Ector appealed.
In a 2-1 opinion and order in which Trump judge Thapar cast the deciding vote, a Sixth Circuit panel affirmed. The majority noted that it had previously approved some such denials based on similar “conclusory form orders.” Based on its own analysis of the record, the majority suggested that Ector appeared to be recovering from COVID-19, and that even if that and his other medical conditions constituted “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the relief he sought, there was other “reasonable information” justifying the denial, such as his significant participation in a major “drug-trafficking conspiracy.”
Judge Karen Nelson Moore strongly dissented, focusing on the majority’s decision to “condone and encourage” district court use of “barebones form orders” to deny compassionate release requests. “Bereft of facts and bereft of reasons,” she wrote, such orders leave the individuals involved, “the public, and appellate courts” to only “guess and speculate” about the basis for the district court’s decision. This practice, she continued, “contravenes the district court’s duty to provide reasons” for its decisions, “erodes ‘the public’s trust in the judicial institution,’” and raises particular concerns in a COVID-related case like this one because the court’s action “could result in death.” The majority’s effort to review the record on its own makes matters worse, Moore pointed out, since it improperly “step[s] outside” the appellate court role and “substitute[es] our own judgment” for that of the lower court and “undermin[es] the proper role of the district court. The case should have been sent back to that court to make a specific, fact-based determination on Ector’s request.
Trump judge Thapar’s deciding vote in this case means more than the potentially dangerous denial of the compassionate release request of Ector and others. It is yet another example of Trump judges and justices making or approving significant decisions in important cases affecting people’s lives and liberties with little or no explanation of the reason why, as in numerous Supreme Court “shadow docket” cases and the recent Fifth Circuit decision to cancel and refuse to allow even a hearing on a preliminary injunction request against a severely restrictive Texas abortion law with absolutely no explanation. As Judge Moore pointed out based on earlier Supreme Court precedent, judicial decisions are supposed to be “reasoned decisions” that explain to legislatures and the public the basis for exercising the judiciary’s extraordinary power. That is a fundamental pillar of the rule of law. This case provides a significant example of the importance of confirming fair-minded Biden nominees to all our federal courts who will follow that principle and counteract the votes of Trump judges who do not, as part of our fight for our courts.