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Brewington case focuses First Amendment attention on Indiana

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Daniel Brewington is either a poster child for the wrongful prosecution of free speech or a man whose online rants about a judge constituted criminal threats. It all depends on your point of view.

After almost two years in the Department of Correction, Brewington was freed Sept. 5, just days before the Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether to formally grant transfer in his case. Brewington had done his time for a Dearborn County jury’s conviction of intimidation, perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from blog posts he made criticizing a judge who stripped him of joint custody of his children.

apb_brewington01-15col.jpg Attorneys Eugene Volokh, left, and Michael Sutherlin prepare for a moot court argument Sept. 11, a day before presenting oral arguments in the Indiana Supreme Court on behalf of Daniel Brewington in Brewington v. State. (IL Photo/Aaron P. Bernstein)

“Tell any person on the street what happened to me,” Brewington said outside court chambers after oral arguments Sept. 12, “and the first thing they say is, ‘that’s a violation of free speech.’”

At the center of the case are posts on family court blogs in which Brewington took aim at Dearborn Circuit Judge James Humphrey, who presided in his custody case. The posts for which Brewington was prosecuted included comments that Humphrey was a child abuser for stripping Brewington of custody and that Humphrey was playing with fire and Brewington was “an accomplished pyromaniac.”

Inside the courtroom, Brewington’s case drew First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh to argue on behalf of a dozen amici who feared that if the Brewington verdict affirmed by the Court of Appeals stands, it would represent a chilling effect on speech, opinions expressed in the media and political speech.

“I think the whole country wants this court to accept transfer,” Brewington’s attorney Michael Sutherlin told the court, noting a spectrum of amici in the court from the ACLU of Indiana to Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, along with numerous media, speech and academic interests.

The state argued, though, that Brewington had failed to preserve the constitutional arguments, and that in its consideration of granting transfer, the justices should narrow the inquiry. At any rate, the state says Brewington made true threats against a judge and his conviction and sentence should stand.

“Not only is it invited error, he also has waived his claims,” Indiana Attorney General Chief Counsel Stephen Creason said of Brewington’s appeal raising constitutional issues.

“This court should not take cases merely to resolve issues when they’re not properly presented and properly developed. It should not take cases to decide broad issues of constitutional law outside the context and the facts of a particular case. That’s the situation presented here.”

Creason said Brewington had been convicted for the totality of a torrent of real threats and veiled threats that caused Humphrey to be placed in fear of retaliation for a prior lawful act, but he acknowledged the Court of Appeals decision was overbroad. “It reached questions it should not have reached,” he said, conceding that a selective reading of the opinion could be used to justify criminal prosecutions of protected speech.

Justices quizzed both sides about the proper scope of their inquiry. Chief Justice Brent Dickson and Justice Robert Rucker appeared to wrestle with whether the constitutional questions could be reached procedurally and whether such arguments were properly preserved in the trial court.

Dickson also said the jury’s general verdict, which did not specify what parts of Brewington’s speech constituted intimidation, “was essentially invited by Mr. Brewington or his counsel.”

Sutherlin said legal counsel’s ineffectiveness during Brewington’s jury trial amounted to fundamental error. “This court and every court, its intent, its focus, is to do justice,” he said. He noted Brewington’s public defender essentially put on no case and “spent all of 45 minutes talking to him before this trial.”

The intimidation statute in question, I.C. 35-45-2-1, includes not just threats of violence or harm to a person, but also threats that “expose the person threatened to hatred, contempt, disgrace or ridicule.”

“The state, the defendant and amici all agree,” Volokh argued, “the Court of Appeals erred in its First Amendment analysis.” He suggested that the COA had left open the possibility that political criticism or commentary could be treated as a criminal act at the discretion of a prosecutor.

“There are hundreds of blogs out there of dissatisfied fathers and they’re saying the same thing,” criticizing the family law system, Sutherlin argued. “Dan Brewington never had a face-to-face discussion or conversation or threat to Judge Humphrey.”

“This has been an inflammatory attack on Dan Brewington,” Sutherlin said in regard to the blog comment in which Brewington called Humphrey a child abuser. “Here’s the context: Anybody who takes away my right to visit my children is abusing my children. That’s the context of the statement.”

Sutherlin noted Mitt Romney’s son made a remark during the 2012 presidential election in which he said he’d like to punch President Obama, and a member of Congress shouted “liar” at the president during the State of the Union address. Sutherlin said those instances were properly regarded as hyperbole, but they might not have been under the COA analysis.

The fundamental error argument seemed to gain traction with Justice Mark Massa, who pressed Creason on why the doctrine shouldn’t apply.

“It’s reserved for issues that make the fair trial impossible,” Creason said of fundamental error.

Creason also said Brewington’s threats didn’t have to be a threat to injure, and that even veiled threats that place someone in fear of being injured are criminal.

“You’re talking about a very, very big door,” Justice Steven David responded. But Creason said unlike an off-the-cuff remark, Brewington’s remarks were “well-considered and made over time.”

Massa and David focused their inquiries toward Creason on the “fear of retaliation” language.

“It’s an expression that subjects you to fear for having done a prior lawful act. … It’s the fear that you’re being retaliated against for something you have the right to do,” Creason said, explaining what constitutes a threat considered criminal in nature under the statute.

David had a quick reply: “Isn’t that the objective, indirectly if not directly, of every blogger, every commentator? I’m struggling with where your line is.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a statement the day of the Brewington arguments urging the justices to affirm the trial court. “The state contends the defendant’s right of self-expression does not include the right to threaten violence or harm against a judge or any other person,” the statement said.

Brewington, meanwhile, won’t be blogging for some time. Now a resident of Ohio, he said terms of his probation prohibit him from posting on blogs or social media.•
 

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  • Ridiculous
    This is ridiculous, an obvious retaliation all too common in these kangaroo courts today. Thousands are wishing Dan Brewington well.
  • A hard case ,,,,
    Hard cases are not usually the best for making good laws. Heckfire, in Indiana one need not issue any threat to get in lots of hot water for speaking of the judiciary. See the poll on the left to sound off about the dangerous trend afoot.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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