Republished by permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where this article first appeared. Thanks to my friend Harvey for making this available to readers of Media Nation.
By Harvey A. Silverglate
Some lawyers are joking when they refer to the Moakley Courthouse as “the House of Pain.” I’m not.
The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.
It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted.
Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar?
Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world.
Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power on prosecutors, who have the discretion to pick and choose from statutes covering the same behavior.
This dangerous state of affairs has resulted in countless miscarriages of justice, many of which aren’t recognized as such until long after unfairly incarcerated defendants have served “boxcar-length” sentences.
Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.
As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”
Swartz believed that information on the Internet should be free to the extent possible. He entered the site operated by JSTOR, a repository of millions of pages of academic articles available for sale, and downloaded a huge cache. He did not sell any, and while it remains unclear exactly how or even if he intended to make his “information should be free” point, no one who knew Swartz, not even the government, thought he was in it to make money.
Therefore, JSTOR insisted that criminal charges not be brought.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz obscured that point when announcing the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars, and whether its to feed your children or for buying a new car” she said, failing to recognize the most basic fact: that Swartz neither deprived the owners of the articles of their property nor made a penny from his caper.