Who Is the Controversial MA Federal Judge in the ‘Varsity Blues’ Case?

Lawyers for the defendants in the Operation Varsity Blues cases have claimed that the Boston US Attorneys Office is steering cases in an improper manner to one specific judge - US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton. Gorton is known to hand out very tough sentences and the lawyers have been making objections for the appearance that the assignment is totally random.

They have stated that the plan of the prosecutor clearly amounts to judge shopping. The letter from the attorneys to Judge Patti Saris was rebutted by a letter from US Attorney Andrew Lelling who said the request from the lawyers was essentially a Hail Mary by people who know better than this and seemed to have leaked the letter to the press after they sent it to the judge. Some legal experts argue that the sharing of that letter to the media is not exactly a leak as Judge Saris did post it on PACER, which is a public access service online that allows registered users to get public information on legal cases.

Of course, judge shopping is hardly uncommon in high profile case, especially when there are several defendants. In Operation Perfect Hedge in the Southern District of New York there were more than 100 prosecutions. US Attorney Preet Bharara’s team sent many cases to US District Judge Richard Sullivan, who is well known for being very strict on federal legal guidelines.

During oral arguments on an insider trading case that was heard during appeal in 2014, assistant US Attorney Attonia Apps stuttered when she was challenged by a judge about how many of the insider trading cases were being heard by Sullivan. He not only gave out tough sentences. He also was known to have a lower burden of proof requirement for the government regarding tippee knowledge. Statistically, there are more than 50 judges available to hear cases, but in seven of the big insider trading cases, Sullivan heard four of then, which is 57%. Judge Sullivan then was moved to the 2nd Circuit Court in October 2018. It is important to note that Sullivan was the judge who heard the infamous Newman case pertaining to insider training. That case was overturned on appeal.

In Massachusetts, Judge Nathaniel Gorton is known to give very tough sentences. But is there any way to show he hands down longer sentences than other judges in that district? Actually, the answer is in the affirmative.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse or TRAC is a large, data gathering, data research and data distribution organization that is based in Syracuse University. TRAC was first set up in 1989 to be a research center. It was sponsored by the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. Via FOIA requests and much research, TRAC offers much detail about how the US justice system operates. One of those areas where much research is available is how federal judges hand down sentences compared to one another. According to the report on Judge Gorton, it seems that he hands down tougher sentences than many other judges.

Trac states on Judge Gorton:

‘For all cases disposed of in the 12 month period ending in December 2017 that were credited to Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in the District of Massachusetts, the average prison sentence was 60.6 months. During the 12-month span covered here, Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton has sentenced 8 defendants compared with 21 defendants during the previous 12 month period.’

The purpose of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were to cut the disparities in prison sentences across the US, but it seems there are major differences, and these differences can occur even in a district court.

TRAC also noted on this judge:

During the last five years there were 13 other judges in the District of Massachusetts with information on convictions during that period. Average prison sentence numbers passed down for those judges ranged from 29.2 months to 57.1 months, putting Judge Gorton's average prison sentence of 53.7 months at the higher end of the range. The average prison sentence for the whole District of Massachusetts during that time was 43.6 months.’

‘Varsity Blues’ Case Background

In early March, federal prosecutors charged 50 people in a scheme that attempted to buy spots for their children in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other prestigious schools.

Thirty-three wealthy parents were charged in the federal case, including movie celebrities and major business leaders. Also involved in the scandal were top college coaches who were accused of taking millions of dollars to help to admit undeserving non-athletes to many colleges, including the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest and Georgetown.

Some of the well-known parents who have been charged are television star Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli; actress Felicity Huffman and William  E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the firm TPG.

According to the New York Times, the college cheating scandal was stunning in audacity and breadth. It was the largest college admissions scandal in the history of the Justice Department. It involved more than 200 federal agents around the country and netted charges against 50 people in six states.

The charges emphasized how college admissions at top colleges are now so cutthroat and competitive that some well-heeled parents have decided to break the rules. Authorities accuse some of the parents of some of the country’s wealthiest and most privileged students wanted to unfairly buy spots for their kids at top universities. This not only cheats the system; it could cheat some of the hardest-working students in the country from a chance at a high-quality college education.

Prosecutors say in many cases, the students did not know that their parents were cheating on their behalf by paying bribes to universities and coaches. Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, pointed out the parents were the ones behind the fraud, and some could do years in prison for conspiracy, fraud and racketeering.

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