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A plea on crime victims’ rights

In the first attempt to get the Supreme Court to clarify the rights of crime victims under a 2004 federal law, lawyers for 12 victims of an explosion three years ago at an oil refinery in Texas have asked the Supreme Court to delay a federal judge’s action on a plea agreement that would settle federal criminal charges against a large oil company. The victims contend that the plea deal is too lenient, and that it was worked out without any input from the victims — a claimed violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

At this stage, the victims are asking the Court to block a Fifth Circuit Court ruling that limits their right to challenge denials of rights under that Act; their lawyers are preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court on that point, and want a delay until that is decided.   The application for a stay (Dean, et al., v. U.S. District Court, 08A3) can be downloaded here.  BP Products North America Inc. filed an opposition to the stay request, arguing that the 2004 law does not allow for stays.

If a stay is not issued, the victims’ lawyers argued, the plea deal could be ratified by a federal judge, forever scuttling their rights to have taken part in discussions of what such a bargain should include, before it takes effect.

Under BP Products’ plea agreement, it would pay a $50 million fine and plead guilty to violations of the Clean Air Act for failing to maintain equipment at the refinery and failing to warn those working near the site of potential fire, explosion or other hazards.

Aside from the criminal case, some 4,000 civil damage claims have been filed in federal and state courts; about half of those have been settled for more than $1.6 billion.

The case on its way to the Supreme Court arises from an explosion at the BP Products refinery in Texas City, Texas, on March 23, 2005.  Fifteen workers were killed, and more than 170 others were seriously injured.  Twelve of the injured victims have joined in a challenge to a plea bargain.  The lead individual in the group is Alisa Dean, whose husband, Ralph, rushed into a burning structure to rescue her.

With permission from a federal judge to avoid notifying victims of plea discussions, federal prosecutors and BP worked out a deal and hen submitted it to a U.S. District Court for approval.  The District judge has yet to act on it.

Learning of the plea arrangement, the victims challenged it, but their objections about their rights as victims were turned aside by the judge.  The Fifth Circuit Court then denied their request, under a mandamus petition, to order the judge to reject the bargain because of the violation of their rights  The Circuit Court did find that their rights had been violated, sayng that the government was wrong to work out the deal in private without victim input and should have found a way to let them express their views. It told the District judge to consider their objections before approving the bargain.

What is at issue in the stay application, filed with Justice Antonin Scalia on Friday, is the standard of review to be applied by federal appeals courts when crime victims seek an order to compel a judge to uphold their rights under the 2004 law.  The Fifth Circuit applied a traditional view of mandamus authority, limiting its scope so that a more exacting standard for normal appeal procedures did not apply. Mandamus relief, it said, is discretionary, and it refused to provide it.

That ruling, the victims’ stay request argues, agrees with an interpretation by the Tenth Circuit Court, but expressly conflicts with rulings of the Second and Ninth Circuit Courts.  It is this conflict, the application said, that will form the basis of the coming appeal to the Supreme Court.

In opposing the request, BP Products argued, among other points, that this case is not the proper one to address the mandamus issue — even if, as it argues, the victims have no right under the law to seek a stay of the Fifth Circuit ruling for more than five days.  The opposition thus contends that an indefinite stay would not be available now.

BP Products also contends that the Supreme Court should await a coming appeal from the Tenth Circuit ruling — a case in which there is no issue of a stay.  Moreover, the company contends that its rights as a criminal defendant are being injured by delay in resolving the government case against it. Sentencing originally had been scheduled for last November. it notes.

Justice Scalia, as the Circuit Justice for the Fifth Circuit, has the authority to act alone on the delay request, or to share it with his colleagues.