Several years ago, I began work on a project that I fancied to be both hypothetical and academic. In the aftermath of September 11, a number of commentators, including one prominent member of the legal academy, advanced the proposition that interrogation by torture in pursuit of terrorists should be viewed as permissible under the United States Constitution when undertaken with procedural safeguards. In an article published in 2003, I argued that these commentators were legally sloppy and morally obtuse: no matter what procedures accompany it, interrogation by torture is both at odds with settled constitutional law as it is and profoundly inconsistent with the legal system as it should be.
Lawyers often represent clients in criminal cases when the odds are long or a catastrophe likely. The facts might be harmful, the evidence overwhelming, or the law clearly on the side of the prosecution. Still, we do the best we can. But what if the system is rigged? What if the system has the trappings of a fair fight but is, in fact, skewed to one side and, by design, the lawyer cannot fully defend the client? What if the lawyer can only lend legitimacy to a process that at its core is biased, slanted in favor of the other side, or fundamentally unfair? Indeed, what if the system is rigged so as to prevent the lawyer from zealously representing the client, or if it compromises the lawyer’s undivided loyalty to the client? Should lawyers refuse to participate in such systems, or should they – should we – still do the best we can?
Two innovative federal crimes, 18 U.S.C. §2339A and §2339B, have been frequently charged in prosecutions since September 11, 2001, becoming key elements in the government’s anti-terrorism efforts. Section 2339A makes it a federal crime knowingly to provide material support or resources in preparation for or in carrying out specified crimes of terrorism. Section 2339B prohibits knowingly providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. These statutes bear some resemblance to criminal liability for complicity, but they are being used like a new kind of conspiracy charge, the familiar “prosecutor’s darling.” Unlike conspiracy, they are framed with a mens rea of knowledge rather than of purpose, and because they are substantive offenses, they can be combined with traditional conspiracy charges. These provisions can be used to impose punishment for conduct remote from the commission of criminal harms, often conduct involving minimal and outwardly non-criminal acts.