The meaning of the “Roadside Strangler” case

Judge Robert Chatigny, President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, has expressed regret over how he handled the case of Michael Ross, the “Roadside Strangler.” I discussed Judge Chatigny’s conduct in that case here.
Yesterday, under tough questioning by Republican Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chatigny testified that he was trying to do the right thing in connection with the issue of Ross’ death sentence but went about it in the wrong way. He acknowledged, for example, that he was unduly harsh in the way he spoke to Ross’ lawyer, whose license to practice law Chatigny threatened.
Chatigny’s testimony is tantamount to an admission that he exhibited improper judicial temperament in the Ross case. That admission alone will likely cause some Senators to oppose confirmation.
But the Ross case also raises questions about Chatigny’s judgment. At the core of his conduct in that matter was his view that sexual sadism is somehow a mitigating factor in a rape and murder case. It’s perfectly proper, and indeed commendable, for a judge to conclude that “if we’re going to have an execution, we ought to do it the right way.” What seems problematic is Chatigny’s belief that “the right way” in Ross’ case entailed embracing the theory that sexually sadistic criminals have some sort of special argument against being executed and even against being convicted.
Moreover, Judge Chatigny’s handling of the Ross case is not the only indication of wrong-headedness when it comes to criminal law in general and sex-related crimes in particular. He struck down the sex offender registry known as Megan’s law, a decision that the Supreme Court eventually overturned 9-0. And on at least six occsions, he has given distributors of child pornography sentences that are well below the federal sentencing guideline range. In one of them, he sentenced the defendant to four months in prison where the guideline minimum was 15.
Judge Chatigny’s jurisprudence in these areas seems to fall well outside the mainstream. It would not be unreasonable for Senators to conclude that this jurisprudence, coupled with Chatigny’s admittedly improper handling of the Ross case, provides grounds for trying to block confirmation.

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