Is Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling a 2010 Scottsboro Boy?

Maybe not, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor uses his unlikely defense before the Supreme Court to give a primer on how to pick an unbiased jury.

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If you’re convicted after spending a reported $30 million on legal fees to keep from going to jail, it makes sense to go all in and take your case all the way up to the Supreme Court. It paid off for Jeffrey Skilling, who prevailed in challenging the constitutionality of the legal doctrine used to convict him in Houston for his role in the collapse of energy giant Enron. A unanimous court led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (pdf) held that the federal statute criminalizing “honest services fraud” was meant to target the receipt of bribes and kickbacks. The government’s theory — that Skilling violated the statute by misrepresenting the financial health of Enron to shareholders — falls outside the scope of conduct that Congress intended to reach in enacting the statute. The Supreme Court chose not to overturn his conviction, but punted the case back to a lower court to determine whether Skilling should go free.

Most interesting, of course, was the Supreme Court’s treatment of Jeffrey Skilling’s “Scottsboro Boys” defense, in which the former CEO claims that he was convicted in what amounted to a mob atmosphere in Houston. A little background: In 1932’s Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of several young black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train, in part on the grounds that the mob atmosphere during the trial had denied the black defendants due process. Seventy-eight years later, Skilling made a similar argument in his case, charging that the inflamed passions of jurors in Houston, where the Enron implosion decimated the pension funds of scores of Houstonians, had been stoked by portrayals of him in the media as guilty until proven innocent. Skilling argued that the judge had presided over a hasty and unfair process of juror voir dire, and had allowed several jurors with dubious claims to impartiality to serve.

It was a nervy argument to make. Jeffrey Skilling is not the image that comes to mind when most of us think about trial by mob. But you don’t get to be CEO of one of the largest corporations in the United States without having some chutzpah, and Skilling’s lawyers pressed this argument to some sympathetic ears at oral argument before the Supreme Court.

Although a majority of the court ultimately rejected Skilling’s argument that his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury had been violated, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and the soon-to-depart John Paul Stevens, found that the judge did not properly ensure that Skilling faced an unbiased jury. On that basis alone, she would have granted Skilling a new trial. It was clear from oral argument in the case that Sotomayor was concerned about the juror-bias claim in Skilling’s case. She expressed open incredulity that the juror voir dire had lasted only five hours (pdf).