On January 7th, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in United States vs. Lanier and consider the constitutionality of using a Reconstruction-era federal statue for prosecuting state and local officials. The case involves Tennessee Judge David W. Lanier who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually assaulting five women who worked at the courthouse, including forcing them to engage in oral sex with him,. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, however, because federal prosecutors used a federal statute originally intended to protect African-Americans from local government brutality during the Reconstruction era.
Federal prosecutors have used the statute to bring to justice state and local officials who have victimized citizens but who are not generally prosecuted because of their ties to their states’ criminal law system. As a case in point, Lanier is a judge, the brother of the local prosecutors and his family has dominated Democratic party politics in the area for decades. The federal law states that it is a crime for anyone acting under the “color of law” to deny someone his or her “rights [as] protected by the Constitution.” Federal prosecutors have used interpreted this Civil Rights Law to cover sexual assault because women have a right to bodily integrity. They have also used the law extensively in prosecuting prison guards who abuse prisoners. The Appeals Court ruled that, because the Supreme Court has not interpreted the law to cover such abuses, federal prosecutors cannot try persons under it because they cannot extend or create criminal law. U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger commented in response that, “it is clear beyond all doubt that an intentional sexual assault by a state official, lacking any conceivable justification, is a deprivation of liberty without due process of the law, and therefore may be prosecuted under Section 242 as a willful violation of rights protected by the Constitution.”