BLOG: How Edwards trial judge rules on narrow issue could be broader sign

March 28, 2012 6:58:25 PM PDT
Federal prosecutors and attorneys for John Edwards are awaiting a ruling from presiding judge Catherine Eagles as to how far Team Edwards can go in its cross-examination of former Edwards aide Andrew Young once the trial starts next month. Specifically, the defense wants to be able to introduce the fact that state trial judges held Young in contempt of court, and questioned his truthfulness, during the recent Young - Rielle Hunter legal battle over the infamous "sex tape". Government lawyers -- who have made it clear that, with the death of Fred Baron and incapacity of Bunny Mellon, Young is their key witness -- want such impeachment evidence excluded.

This issue of whether Young's state court civil case conduct can be introduced at Edwards' federal criminal trial matters but, in and of itself, it's not a huge deal. As the government's lead lawyer David Harbach conceded during the recent court argument about the question, with or without the state court conduct evidence, Edwards' defense team has plenty of ways to attack Young's credibility. But here is why I think the judge's decision on Young could be an important sign of things to come, particularly how she might rule on major disputes that occur during the trial. Judge Eagles dealt Edwards a huge blow last October when she denied his motion to dismiss the indictment. Yet since then, Edwards has prevailed on every big argument between the sides she's had to settle: whether former FEC Commissioners would be barred from testifying that even if Edwards' orchestrated payments from political supporters to his mistress Rielle Hunter, it's not a federal election law violation; whether the trial would be postponed due to Edwards' health; and whether he could add Hunter's civil attorneys to his criminal defense team on the eve of trial. 

On the Young issue, both sides have a credible position. If Eagles rules for Edwards again, I think it's a signal that -- having refused to make the case go away as Edwards desperately hoped -- she is going to give the defense a lot of latitude as Edwards seeks a "not guilty" verdict. But here's the rub: if Eagles gives the defense substantial leeway in terms of evidence and witnesses, and the jury still comes back with a verdict of "guilty", I wouldn't be surprised to see Eagles then impose on Edwards a very stiff sentence. Only time will tell. 

For now, how Judge Eagles rules on the Andrew Young evidence motion may tell us a lot.

Hampton Dellinger is a graduate of Yale Law School, a former official with the Department of Justice, and an adjunct faculty member at Duke Law School. Click here to learn more about his background.

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