Something Fishy about the “Smell Test” and the Standard of Review

Fish2A couple of interesting dissents filed today in a denial of rehearing en banc in United States v. Jenkins, case no. 06-50049 (9th Cir. Mar. 4, 2008). I blogged about the panel decision in this post because the decision resolved an open issue on the standard of review to apply when reviewing an order dismissing an indictment for prosecutorial vindictiveness. My post referred readers to California Appellate Report for Professor Martin’s write-up of the merits.

Judge O’Scannlain, joined by five other judges, dissents from the order denying rehearing en banc, and Chief Judge Kozinski writes a second — and very brief — dissent to highlight Judge O’Scannlain’s criticism of the “smell test” that the district court explicitly applied in granting the motion to dismiss. It’s hard to say how sarcastic the district court was when it made that remark on the record, but Chief Judge Kozinski writes: “A test based on the olfactory apparatus of each district judge, rather than on well-defined and closely cabined legal standards, would give the district courts far too much say over who gets prosecuted and when.”

Clever, but initially I thought that was a bit over the top. After all, the panel did not defer to the district court’s discretion; it adopted a de novo standard for reviewing an order dismissing the indictment on the ground of prosecutorial vindictiveness, then set about a very detailed review of the facts and law. Neither Judge O’Scannlain nor Chief Judge Kozinski take issue with the panel adopting a de novo standard of review, but both appear to believe that the analysis the panel conducted under that standard doesn’t improve much — if at all — on the district court’s “smell test.”

(Public domain image courtesy of United States Fish & Wildlife Service.)

UPDATE (3/6/08): Robert Loblaw at Decision of the Day “smells” a law review article to be spawned from the case.

UPDATE #2 (3/6/08): I noticed after posting the first update that the type offset caused by the photo may have made it look like the excerpt from Judge Kozinski’s opinion (which was intended to be in a block quote format) was my writing. I’ve removed it from the block quote and placed it in quotation marks to clear that up.