WHEN A CASE BECOMES POLITICALLY TOO HOT TO HANDLE
Criminal defense attorneys are sworn to represent their clients as vigorously and ethically as possible.
But doing so might cost them a judgeship with Gov. Bill Walker. [See the original story here.]
Juneau defense attorney Julie Willoughby found that out the hard way. After applying for a seat on the Juneau Superior Court, Willoughby received glowing reviews from her fellow lawyers around the state. She went through a rigorous scoring process. Lawyers around Alaska were allowed to weigh in on the quality of her work and the content of her character.
She was the highest scoring attorney to apply for the Juneau Superior Court seat being vacated by Justice Louis Menendez.
By all accounts, she is an outstanding criminal defense attorney.
Gov. Bill Walker offered her the job: It would be Superior Court Judge Julie Willoughby.
But then a member of Walker’s staff showed him a legal brief associated with Ty Grussendorf. Walker quickly rescinded his offer, before it was even announced.
Grussendorf is standing trial this fall for seven counts of sexual abuse of a minor — six of them were first-degree assaults. Willoughby is no longer his lawyer, but she was when she filed a memorandum with the court that Walker says he was shocked by.
The governor’s chief of staff, Scott Kendall, said that the arguments Willoughby had made in defense of her client portrayed a victim as a 12-year-old girl and a man engaged in a “mutually satisfying sexual adventure,” in which Willoughby argued the girl had not been harmed.
Instead, according to Willoughby, the girl had “solicited” the sexual assaults.
Kendall provided a statement to the Juneau Empire: “Each of these statements is disturbing individually. Collectively, these arguments shocked the conscience of Governor Walker and his advisors. The governor understands that criminal defense attorneys must be zealous advocates. In fact, he has previously appointed defense attorneys to judgeships, including to the Alaska Supreme Court. However, an attorney can be zealous without attacking a child victim and misstating statutory rape laws.”
The case was high profile because the perpetrator was the son of a legislative aide, and the case became fodder for the media. It was a political case at one point. Ty Grussendorf was the grandson of former Rep. Ben Grussendorf, and the son of legislative aide Tim Grussendorf.
Tim was legislative staffer to Sen. Lyman Hoffman, and reporter Austin Baird alleged that Tim worked to change state law in a way that could have helped his son’s defense.
Baird is now the governor’s press secretary.
The Grussendorf case is so politically charged that it even impacted Rep. Cathy Munoz’s re-election, after she raised questions. Rep. Justin Parish beat her in November, 2016; he later was forced to not run for reelection due to his unwelcome advances toward a woman.
WAS WILLOUGHBY CORRECT IN HER ARGUMENT?
The governor got caught not doing his homework, and not thinking through what the actual argument was before the court.
It is a constitutional argument at its core. Willoughby was not arguing the facts, but about whether our system is so harsh in a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for sexual offenses, that we’re condemning sexually active 18-year-olds to life in prison.
In writing in support of dismissing the case on constitutional grounds, Willoughby was seeking to reform the law itself that could bite any sexually precocious 18-year-old boy or girl in the legal butt:
“The constitutional arguments in this case – due process, cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection and the goals of criminal administration – are all interconnected. This motion challenges the rigidity of a system designed to punish sexual predators. It is patently unfair to apply these charges and the resultant mandatory sentences and restrictions to high school students on an unfortunate but consensual sexual adventure. There is no humane reason to sentence Mr. Grussendorf to a slow death in the Alaska prison system. And there is no rational reason why the community would want to spend millions of dollars needlessly incarcerating him. The system is broken. Only by declaring the charging and sentencing structure for sex offenders unconstitutional may the system be brought to rationality.”
Willoughby’s memorandum detailed the encounters — blow jobs and all — which started when the victim contacted Grussendorf via a social media site called “Kix,” which minors are prohibited from using, according to the company’s rules. A few sexual encounters later, the girl broke off the relationship after being bullied by friends at school.
Normally, Willoughby said, such arguments relating to sentencing would happen after conviction. But in this case, she wanted to address it before trial because a guilty verdict would lead to death in prison for Ty Grussendorf, something that she argued was excessive punishment. That would force the young man into a plea bargain, and pressure him to admitting to things he may not be guilty of, in order to avoid life — and death — in prison.
Willoughby was arguing that locking a young man up for a sexual encounter he had at 18 with a 12 year old and throwing away the key until he was 76 or dead is not justice.
The entire legal argument is posted here. Caution, salacious material ahead:
That Willoughby, who teaches constitutional law, didn’t see that as a barricade to her judicial appointment, and that no other lawyer in the dozens who responded to the judicial survey saw this argument as an issue, indicates that someone close to the governor was going to dig something up on Willoughby to ensure that Amy Mead was offered the judgeship.
That’s exactly what happened. Only Gov. Bill Walker saw it as a problem, because it could be an election year scandal for him.
The cautionary note here is that now any defense attorney that makes a constitutional argument in defense of an admittedly guilty defendant could have their legal brief used against them if they ever apply for a judgeship.
WHAT WOULD AMY MEAD HAVE DONE?
Mead, who is the nominee to be sworn in as a Superior Court judge, may have only ranked in the middle of the pack of applicants, but her career has never put her in a position of defending an almost indefensible client, other than the City and Borough of Juneau. She has never had a case like Ty Grussendorf to defend. The public doesn’t know how she views constitutional questions.
This turn of events could put a chill on applicants, and limit judgeships to those with only corporate or municipal law experience and little to no criminal defense, trial experience, or constitutional scholarship.
Grussendorf’s trial is scheduled for Juneau Superior Court on Oct. 22, with Judge Phillip Pallenberg presiding.