U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings of Miami was arraigned today on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and obstruction of justice, but declined to enter a plea as a sign he will protest every step of the proceedings against him.
Hastings, Florida's first black federal judge, has been accused of conspiring with Washington lawyer William A. Borders Jr. to solicit $150,000 in bribes from defendants appearing before Hastings.
Visiting U.S. District Judge C. William Kraft Jr. of Philadelphia entered a plea of "not guilty" on Hastings' behalf, as required by law. Hastings was released on $1,000 personal recognizance bond.
A smiling and seemingly relaxed Hastings appeared in court with two of the three members of his defense team--William Waterman of Pontiac, Mich., and Joel Hirschhorn, a well-known Miami criminal defense lawyer. The third attorney is Jay Hogan, another Miami lawyer who is a leading expert on wiretapping.
The government reportedly plans to introduce as evidence court-authorized taped conversations between Borders and Hastings and Borders and an FBI undercover agent.
Hirschhorn said a team of several lawyers will assist in Hastings' defense, including "university professors, practicing lawyers and legal scholars." He declined to name them.
Hirschhorn and Waterman told reporters that Hastings' defense will attack the jurisdiction of the court, the indictment and the entire grand jury process. "The grand jury was historically designed to protect people," said Waterman. "It's turned into a secret chamber proceeding. Any prosecutor can get an indictment if he's clever . . . . This is purely a circumstantial case."
There also is disagreement in legal circles whether Hastings might be immune from prosecution unless he is first removed from office through the federal impeachment process. He is believed to be the second federal judge indicted for crimes allegedly committed while on the bench.
"As far as we're concerned, this is the most important case facing black people in this country since the Dred Scott case," said Waterman. "All eyes will be directed towards Miami." (The Dred Scott decision in 1857 sanctioned slavery and declared blacks ineligible for citizenship.)
" Hastings is a federal district court judge who happened to be black, who happened to have rendered decisions raising the ire of this government in reference to Haitians and others, a man who has been an activist all his life and is fighting to save his good name," Waterman said. "I assure you, he will be vindicated."
Hastings has charged that racism and politics are behind the Justice Department's probe, particularly in light of his rulings, which have hampered efforts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport Haitian refugees.
Waterman, 45, a friend of Hastings, represented black students and parents in a 1970 Pontiac desegregation case.
Hirschhorn, 38, last year appeared before Hastings after interviewing Haitian refugees in several federal camps to verify INS claims that they wish to be sent back to Haiti. "I've never won a case in front of him," Hirschhorn said of his new client.