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United States v. Bronstein

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

December 22, 2015

DAVID BRONSTEIN, et al., Defendants


         For YASMINA MRABET, Defendant: Jeffrey Louis Light, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF JEFFREY LIGHT, Washington, DC; John James Carney, LEAD ATTORNEY, CARNEY & CARNEY, Washington, DC.

         For USA, Plaintiff: Angela S. George, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Criminal Division, Washington, DC; James Marvin Perez, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Washington, DC.


         CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

         As James Madison observed long ago, " no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas." The Federalist No. 47, at 225 (James Madison) (C. Rossiter ed., 1963). Legislatures at all levels have powerfully confirmed Madison's insight. Yet even if some imprecision must be tolerated in the vast web of statutes that govern our daily lives, the criminal law must be sufficiently definite to provide fair notice to those it would punish on society's behalf and to cabin the discretion of its appointed peacekeepers and factfinders. The question before the Court is whether a law prohibiting three separate forms of speech in the Supreme Court of the United States fulfills these important constitutional requirements.

         The defendants are five individuals who stood up and spoke out at the beginning of a Supreme Court argument session last Term. They were charged with uttering " loud" language and making a " harangue" or " oration" in the Supreme Court building, all in violation of 40 U.S.C. § 6134. Defendants have moved to dismiss that count of the criminal information filed against them, challenging each of the above terms as unconstitutionally vague in all of their applications. With respect to " harangue" and " oration," the Court agrees--a prosecution under this language would violate the Due Process Clause. The word " harangue" is not only anachronistic; its meanings are too imprecise and varied to clearly delineate the prohibited conduct. The word " oration," while more common in modern parlance, suffers from similar definitional ambiguity. Read in isolation, the statute's prohibition of " loud" utterances also poses vagueness concerns. But because the term " loud" can be fairly construed as banning only those utterances that disturb or tend to disturb the normal operations of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court will permit Defendants' prosecution based on that limiting construction.

         I. Background

         A. The April 1, 2015 Incident

         Defendants David Bronstein, Matthew Kresling, Yasmina Mrabet, Belinda Rodriguez, and Richard Saffle arrived at the Supreme Court on the morning of April 1, 2015 to attend an oral-argument session.[1] They passed through an initial security checkpoint, entered the Upper Great Hall, cleared security again, and took their places inside the courtroom. Supreme Court police officers stood at designated posts throughout the courtroom. After a buzzer indicated that proceedings would begin in five minutes, Officer Dunford recited the following message to all assembled:

Welcome to the Supreme Court of the United States. During today's oral arguments it is important that you remain seated and silent. When the first case breaks, please remain silent. If you are remaining for the second case, remain seated. If you are leaving, silently exit the Courtroom. . . . Please alert one of the police officers if you observe anything suspicious, and in the event of an emergency, please remain calm and follow the directions of a police officer. Thank you.

Govt.'s Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Dismiss 3 (" Opp'n" ). The buzzer sounded again at 10:00 a.m. The Supreme Court Marshal struck a gavel to inaugurate the day's proceedings, and three police officers standing in front of the public seating area motioned upward to implore visitors to stand. As the Justices took the bench, the Supreme Court Marshal intoned a familiar greeting:

The Honorable, the Chief Justice, and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.

Id. The Marshal then gaveled audience members to their seats, and the police officers motioned downward to indicate that visitors should sit for the remainder of the argument session. By 10:02 a.m., only one member of the audience--Defendant Belinda Rodriguez--remained standing.

         Rodriguez extended her arm in the air and stated, " We rise to demand democracy. One person, one vote!" Id. A Supreme Court police officer detained Rodriguez and escorted her out of the courtroom. Moments later, Defendant Kresling arose and stated, " We rise to . . . . Money is not speech. One person, one vote!" Id. Another police officer detained Kresling and escorted him away. Next up was Defendant Mrabet, who raised one arm and stated, " Justices, is it not your duty to protect our right to self-government? The first . . . overturn Citizens United. One person, one vote!" Id. She, too, was restrained and taken from the courtroom. Defendant Saffle then initiated a fourth interruption by stating, " Justices, is it not your job to ensure free, fair elections?" Id. at 5. Saffle's outburst met the same response. At this point, Chief Justice Roberts spoke from the bench to warn audience members against further demonstrations: " Anyone else interested in talking will be admonished that it's within the authority of this Court to punish such disturbances by criminal contempt." Id. Immediately thereafter, Defendant Bronstein began singing, " We who believe in freedom shall not rest; we who believe in freedom shall not rest." Id. Bronstein was detained and escorted out of the courtroom.

         In all, these verbal interruptions lasted " approximately two to four minutes." Id. Each defendant was arrested, and the arresting officers--with the aid of other Supreme Court employees--processed the defendants elsewhere in the building. All five defendants were transported to the U.S. Capitol Police station later that day to conclude the arrest process. Two days later, on April 3, 2015, the U.S. Attorney's office filed a two-count criminal information against all five defendants. See Information, ECF No. 1. Count One alleged that each of the five, " with the intent of interfering with, obstructing, or impeding the administration of justice, or with the intent of influencing any judge, juror, witness, or court officer in the discharge of their duties, did demonstrate in or near a building housing a court of the United States," in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1507. Count Two charged all five defendants with " [1] unlawfully mak[ing] a harangue or oration, or [2] utter[ing] loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds," in violation of 40 U.S.C. § 6134. For the sake of simplicity, the parties have christened § 6134's two relevant clauses the " Harangue Clause" and the " Uttering Clause." The Court adopts this terminology.

         B. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         On May 14, 2015, Defendants moved to dismiss Count Two as resting on a facially unconstitutional statute. They advanced two sets of arguments. First, noting that they had been charged with violating the Harangue and Uttering Clauses in their entirety, Defendants contended that select portions of those clauses were unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment. Because the phrase " Supreme Court . . . grounds" includes the surrounding sidewalks, which have been held to be a " public forum" for purposes of First Amendment doctrine--see United States v. Grace, 461 U.S. 171, 180, 103 S.Ct. 1702, 75 L.Ed.2d 736 (1983)--Defendants claimed that the Harangue and Uttering Clauses restrict too much protected speech and are therefore facially unconstitutional. And second, Defendants argued that both clauses were unconstitutionally vague on their face so as to violate the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Specifically, they claimed that a prohibition of " loud" language gives visitors " no criteria . . . to determine whether their speech will be criminal" and " vests too much discretion in the police." Defs.' Mot. Dismiss (" Mot. Dismiss" ) 13. The Harangue Clause, too, allegedly " places unfettered discretion in the police" in criminalizing " harangue[s]" and " oration[s]" in the Supreme Court building and grounds. Id. at 6.

         In its brief in opposition, the Government clarified that it did not intend to prove that Defendants uttered " threatening" or " abusive" language, or that they violated § 6134 anywhere in the Supreme Court " grounds" other than the building itself. See Opp'n 14, 17. But rather than obviate Defendants' First Amendment challenge by superseding the Information with a more narrowly tailored charging document, the Government responded in kind. It argued that Defendants lacked standing to challenge parts of § 6134 that they were not actually accused of violating and that the Harangue and Uttering Clauses passed muster under conventional First Amendment forum analysis.

         At an oral hearing held on September 29, 2015, the Government agreed to file a Superseding Information, which it did on October 1, 2015. Count Two now contains no reference to " abusive" or " threatening" language or the Supreme Court grounds as a whole--it simply charges Defendants with " unlawfully mak[ing] a harangue or oration or utter[ing] loud language in the Supreme Court Building." Superseding Information 2, ECF No. 38. Defendants subsequently informed the Court that they no longer intended to challenge Count Two on First Amendment grounds. But they " do continue to urge the Court to [d]ismiss Count Two on vagueness grounds" as requested in their motion to dismiss. Status Rep. of Oct. 13, 2015, ECF No. 39, at 1. The Court must therefore decide whether the Due Process Clause permits a prosecution for making a " harangue" or an " oration," or uttering " loud" language, in the Supreme Court building.

         II. ...

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