Error Corrected, Error Revealed

When District Court Judge John Woodcock sentenced Quinta Layin Tuleh to 238 days in jail for the good of her unborn child, it presented a conundrum.  Clearly an excess of authority on the court’s part, but certainly done with good intent.  It’s hard to argue against a laudable purpose, like making sure that a pregnant, HIV woman receives adequate medical care so that her child might be born AIDS free.

But Judge Woodcock, after imposition of sentence, had a second chance to consider his decision when, during the hearing on a motion for bail pending appeal, he learned that she could be released and receive proper medical care. From the Bangor Daily News :


Testimony on Monday from Putnam and an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allayed those concerns, Woodcock said in granting the motion for bail.

“I recognize that the sentence turned out to be controversial,” he said. “I can certainly understand how some have misinterpreted what the court intended to do in this case.”

Woodcock said that what he had wanted to do was “to step in between the prison system and the social [safety] net” to ensure that Tuleh remained healthy and that the child was born healthy.

While it’s doubtful that anyone “misinterpreted” what the court intended, Had it not been for the efforts of Tuleh’s counsel and the existence and willingness of the Frannie Peabody Center, providing support to people diagnosed with AIDS and HIV, it’s likely that the judge’s imposition of a sentence of imprisonment “for Tuleh’s own good” would have de facto stood, since even an expedited appeal to the Circuit was unlikely to have helped in time. 

So, all’s well that end’s well?  Not exactly.



“At the time of the sentencing, I had no clear understanding of what the community could do,” Woodcock said. “I had no specifics.”

This sentence is the most problematic of the bunch.  It reveals that the judge, acting upon his own assumptions, decided to put a woman in jail because he had no clue what alternative were available.  In other words, jail was the default for ignorance.  That’s outrageous.

There was no reason in the world that Tuleh’s counsel should have anticipated that the judge needed to know how Tuleh’s medical care would be handled.  It’s wholly outside the scope of the judge’s authority, and bears no connection to any cognizable sentencing factor.  If the judge, despite the fact that medical care is beyond the scope of his authority, demanded to know how she would deal with pregnancy, the method of finding out is relatively clear:  Ask someone.  Ask defense counsel, for example.  Let Tuleh’s lawyer know that this seemingly irrelevant factor is weighing heavily on the court’s mind, and no doubt he would provide the court with the information needed. 

What happened instead should send shivers down your spine.  The judge just guessed, based upon his own limited personal knowledge.  He essentially made it up.  And that became the basis for a sentence of incarceration. 

To Judge Woodcock’s credit, he was open about the purpose of his sentence, albeit after the fact.  At least this presented an opportunity for the defense to address this hitherto unknown issue that the judge, by himself and without any factual basis or investigation, addressed in his sentence.  It happens routinely, however, that judges make assumptions, never known to the parties.  No chance to challenge, to correct, even to know what’s going on inside the judge’s head. 

While federal judges deserve, and are given, ample credit for their intelligence, they don’t know everything.  There’s a wide world of information out there, and no matter how smart or worldly, even judges need to seek hard facts to fill the gaps of assumption.  The requisite information should be subject to the same adversarial testing if disputed as any other claimed fact. 

What should never happen is a judge admitting, after his error is shown, that he acted without a “clear understanding.”  No matter how brilliant a judge thinks he is, it’s never within his authority to simply assume that he inherently possesses sufficient information to make secret assumptions as here.  At least Judge Woodcock had the integrity to admit it.

H/T Doug Berman