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New York Federal Judge Reverses Decision in Controversial Drug Case; Clinton, Dole Had Threatened to Ask for Resignation, Impeachment


April 1996

A federal judge in New York reversed his controversial decision to throw out evidence against a woman who had admitted she was a drug courier (Don Van Natta, Jr., "Judge Assailed Over Drug Case Issues Reversal and an Apology," New York Times, April 2, 1996, p. 1).

U.S. District Judge Harold Baer, Jr.'s reversal of his January 24 decision reinstates evidence against Carol Bayless. The case against her centered on police officers' belief they had reasonable cause to search Bayless' car after they saw men loading bags into the trunk and then run away when they saw police. Baer observed that neighborhood residents in that part of New York City view police as "corrupt, abusive, and violent," and thus it is natural for people to run away when they see police. Because he ruled that the search was unreasonable, he threw out 36 kilograms of seized drug evidence and Bayless' confession (U.S. v. Bayless, 913 F. Supp. 232 (S.D.N.Y. 1996)).

Baer announced the reversal on April 1, apologizing for any misunderstanding or resentment the ruling provoked. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "the hyperbole in my initial decision not only obscured the true focus of my analysis, but regretfully may have demeaned the law-abiding men and women who make Washington Heights their home and the vast majority of the dedicated men and women in blue who patrol the streets of our great city." The judge said he reversed his decision because the prosecution presented new evidence bolstering the credibility of the arresting officers and highlighting inconsistencies in Bayless' testimony.

Baer did not mention statements made by members of Congress and President Clinton's staff questioning Baer's judgment. During a White House press briefing, Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton "regrets his decision" to appoint Baer to the federal bench and called Baer's initial ruling "obviously a wrongheaded decision" (Press Briefing, March 21, 1996).

McCurry said the White House "would evaluate Judge Baer's record as anyone legitimately should on the full breadth of his cases. There are a lot of Reagan-appointed judges, Bush-appointed judges that have made wrongheaded, stupid decisions, too." McCurry added that the White House is "interested in seeing how he rules in this upcoming consideration of the case."

Federal judges are appointed for life, so Clinton would not have had the power to force Baer to resign.

Senate Majority Leader and Republican Presidential candidate Robert Dole criticized President Clinton for appointing "liberal judges who bend the laws to let drug dealers go free" and called for Baer to be impeached (Jonathan Groner, "As Judge-Picker, Dole Is No Ronald Reagan," Legal Times, April 1, 1996, p. 1). [Only judges who have committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" are subject to impeachment.] Nelson Warfield, Dole's press secretary, said the reversal was a correct decision. "Maybe the best that can be said about Judge Baer's ruling is better late than never," he said.

In an unusual response to Clinton and Dole's public statements, four judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a statement March 28 defending Judge Baer (Verbatim, "Judges: Attacks on Baer Go Too Far," Legal Times, April 1, 1996, p. 12). Three of the judges, J. Edward Lumbard, Wilfred Feinberg, and James Oakes, have all served as chief judges of the Second Circuit. Judge Jon O. Newman is the current chief judge of the circuit. "The recent attacks on a trial judge of our circuit have gone too far," the judges wrote. "They threaten to weaken the constitutional structure of this Nation, which has well served our citizens for more than 200 years. ... These attacks do a grave disservice to the principle of an independent judiciary, and, more significantly, mislead the public as to the role of judges in a constitutional democracy."

[Contact the NewsBriefs office for a copy of the relevant section of the White House briefing, the text of the Second Circuit judge's statement, or other information about the case. The transcript of the White House press briefing can be found at the White House Web Site at Go to the White House archive (documents older than one week) and search for "Judge Baer." The transcript can also be obtained from the White House fax on demand service at 202-395-9088.]