The Supreme Court ordinarily proceeds with the deliberation of Percherons pulling a beer truck. Now and then, to the pleasure of the press corps, one of the justices jumps the traces and surprises us all. This was the case on June 22 when the court gave a break to Hosep Bajakajian.
On the surface the facts seemed damning. Bajakajian, his wife and two daughters were waiting at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight that would take them to Italy, thence to Cyprus. Trained dogs sniffed the family baggage, and behold: The bags contained $230,000 in U.S. currency. A further search turned up another $127,000, much of it in a suitcase with a false bottom.Customs agents seized the currency and charged Bajakajian with violating a federal law against smuggling. It is not against the law to take $357,000 out of the country, but it is against the law if one fails to report it. The government demanded that the whole sum be forfeited to the Treasury.
At trial in U.S. District Court, it developed that the defendant had told agents a pack of lies. He said a friend named Abe Ajemian had lent him $200,000. Abe denied it. Bajakajian said Saeed Faroutan had lent him $170,000. Saeed denied it. The best Bajakajian could say in his own defense was that as a member of the Armenian minority in Syria, he had developed a pervasive fear and distrust of government.
A weaker defense never was offered in the history of criminal law, but clearly it made an impression on the trial court. The judge concluded that the defendant had not amassed the money illegally; there was no evidence of money laundering; the defendant was not a crook, he was only a respectable businessman, the owner of a prosperous filling station, who was on his way to Syria to pay a business debt.
Thus the trial court refused to impose a total forfeiture. The court imposed a forfeiture of $15,000 and a fine of $5,000, plus three years on probation. The government appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the sentence. The government went to the Supreme Court, where the token forfeiture once again was affirmed on June 22.
It was a historic moment. Since he came on the high court seven years ago, Justice Clarence Thomas has served as a kind of Percheron conservative. In writing a majority opinion, until this day, he never had found himself in a jurisprudential bed with Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer and Ginsburg. But there he was. You wonder if they all hated themselves in the morning.
The decision was notable in another way. The Supreme Court does not sit to remedy individual problems of injustice. That is not its function. The high court's primary duty is to resolve large questions of constitutional and statutory law.
In Bajakajian's case, the Supremes had to interpret the Eighth Amendment prohibiting the imposition of "excessive" fines. Remarkably, this had never been done before.
In the case at hand, I have a notion that brother Bajakajian got off pretty easy, but I doubt that any earth-shaking precedent has been set. Justice Thomas kicked up those Percheron heels. Three days later he was back in the stable again. Hooray!