Michigan Attorney General Slaps Reporter With Bogus Subpoenas For Doing Her Job

from the abuse-of-power dept

Why is it always the state Attorneys General? Time and time again we see examples of state AGs who seem to think they’re above the law and can abuse their position to attack those they dislike. The latest? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. Apparently, he was none too happy that Huffington Post reporter Dana Liebelson was investigating juvenile prison conditions in the state, and had a representative from his office follow her for two hours across the state to slap her with two separate, but equally questionable, subpoenas, demanding all of her notes:

As Liebelson notes on her Twitter feed, she had had permission to visit the prisons, and agreed not to bring in a recording device. She noted that she followed all the rules that she was given for reporting from the prison — and yet, she immediately gets slapped with a subpoena demanding her notes.

And she wasn’t the only one. Another report notes that Schuette also sent a subpoena to Michigan Radio, demanding its recording of a prisoner/attorney interview.

Of course, after Liebelson’s story started getting social media and press attention, Schuette’s office quickly backed down, and promised to rescind the subpoenas. The excuse given by his office, to MLive, is absolutely ridiculous:

A spokesperson for Schuette, responding to a request for comment, issued a statement indicating a civil service attorney had been “doing the department’s job of defending the state” from lawsuits.

The attorney “followed a common legal procedure” of subpoenaing information from individuals “entering Michigan prisons to speak to prisoners who are suing state taxpayers,” said spokesperson Andrea Bitely.

That makes no sense at all. Defending the state from lawsuits should never involve sending reporters subpoenas demanding all of their notes. It’s a clear intimidation technique that violates all basic concepts of a free and open press.

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Comments on “Michigan Attorney General Slaps Reporter With Bogus Subpoenas For Doing Her Job”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Voting the guy out is a nice punishment considering you are not in a bipartisan setup where both parties are more of the same. But even so, people often still vote for such idiots mostly out of ignorance and lack of interest.

But this is not enough, it doesn’t stop a person that gets the job from abusing it, getting rich and walking away with nothing. We need real punishment like fines, stripping him off the position, jail time. Getting a bunch of people pissed off on you is worth it’s weight in cash. Jail time and cash extraction would make people think twice before abusing their power.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

emma goldman famously said: if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal…

well, through voter roll scrubs, etc, The They ™ don’t have to… in fact, i do NOT ‘trust’ our UNAUDITABLE computer-based voting systems, per-i-od…

i don’t think we can vote our way out of this mess; hasn’t worked so far, and people been trying a long time and going backwards for their trouble…

limbodog (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Will he get punished for the abuses? No? Then expect this to keep happening.

This bugs me about our reporters. It seems to me they should be employing socratic irony when writing about a story like this.

There should be a stream of questions from all reporters making it unavoidable: “What punishment will the AG receive for abusing their power in this manner?”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m a technical guy, not a legal one, so my strong initial reaction to that question is “of course writing equipment counts and recording devices.” However, I also know that’s not what the court means. They mean devices that capture and record the light bouncing off of the objects and the vibrations in the air.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think you miss the point. She agreed not to carry any “recording devices” in with her. I think that would probably preclude and device capable of connecting to a cloud based service. Hand written notes can be photocopied before being turned over to prevent losing them – which is not the point of the request. They want them turned over so that they can get an idea of where the story will be headed prior to it’s being published so that they can counter it or try to suppress it before it is released.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Hand written notes can be photocopied before being turned over to prevent losing them – which is not the point of the request.”

It’s not? I honestly thought that the major point of the request was to suppress the notes. Perhaps I’ve become too cynical, but I think that’s a reasonable supposition.

“They want them turned over so that they can get an idea of where the story will be headed”

If I were a reporter in that situation, I’d very likely make a lot of notes that are just nonsense things that I made up on the fly. I’d know which notes were real and which were lies, but nobody else could be sure. I think that it would be truly hilarious to see what the AG would do with such a jumble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Even if the notes were confiscated without a copy being retained, the reporter would likely remember enough information to publish a very damning article. However, confiscating the notes would allow two other possibilities:

1. Although the Supreme Court has roundly rejected, prior restraint, lower courts still grant it from time to time, especially when it’s requested by officials within the same criminal justice system.

2. Even if they didn’t get out ahead of it, it would allow them to know what information the reporter thought important enough to write down and would allow them time to prepare a defensive response before the story was published.

Also your suggestion of what you would do is a little bit like Monday morning quarterbacking. The reporter likely had no idea that they would subpoena the notes beforehand – after all they granted her access to the prisons in the first place. Why would she suspect that such measures would be necessary? After it happens is a little late for such counter measures.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Recourse is needed!

In a different case Scott Greenfield mentioned:

“Our criminal justice system depends on honesty. It’s also based on the principle that people who do wrong should be punished. Prosecutors, however, often avoid any consequences for their misbehavior, even when it is repeated.

Worse yet, prosecutors are also immune from civil suit, under a Supreme Court-created doctrine called “absolute immunity” that is one of the greatest, though least discussed, examples of judicial activism in history. So prosecutors won’t punish prosecutors, and victims of prosecutors’ wrongdoing can’t even sue them for damages.

That leaves courts without much else to do besides throwing out charges in cases of outrageous misconduct. But if we care about seeing the law enforced fairly and honestly, we need more accountability.”


That part about “absolute immunity” links to a Huffington post article:


But what I want to say is that the constitution needs to be amended so that this ‘absolute immunity’ is removed and some reasonable recourse for prosecutorial misconduct is available for anyone feeling the need, in such a way that the Supreme Court cannot stick their noses in it again.

Josh says:

I can't speak for why it's always an Attorney General

But, as a Michiganian, I can give my opinion of why it’s Schuette this time. It’s because the man is an ass, and an ideologue.

Currently, he is fighting gay marriage becoming legal in this state, because “the voters have spoken” (over ten years ago).

He is also currently fighting legal medical marijuana in the state, even though the voters have spoken in favor of it, because he doesn’t like it.

He’s an embarrassment to many of us in the mitten.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: I can't speak for why it's always an Attorney General

Cute. So when he’s in favor of something, he uses the ‘the voters have said they want X’ excuse, and when he’s not in favor of something, even if the voters are, suddenly his thoughts on the issue are all that matters.

Makes it pretty clear he doesn’t care what those in his state actually want, he’s only interested in using them as an excuse to do something when it’s convenient.

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