WASHINGTON — The Minnesota Court of Appeals has turned down Sen. Larry Craig's effort to undo his guilty plea, scuttling the Idaho Republican's argument that the plea wasn't valid because he'd mailed it in rather than appearing in court in person.
Craig, who's retiring this month from the Senate seat he's held since 1990, pleaded guilty in August 2007 to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in connection with a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport earlier in the summer.
After an undercover officer arrested him, Craig didn't consult a lawyer. He pleaded guilty and paid a $575 fine through the mail, following a phone conversation with the prosecutor. Craig didn't seek to overturn his plea until his arrest became public in the weeks afterward.
A lower court judge turned down his initial attempt to reverse his plea, and Craig appealed that decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
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Craig said in a statement that he was "extremely disappointed" by the Court of Appeals' decision and disagreed with its conclusion. He added that he remains steadfast in his belief that "nothing criminal or improper occurred at the Minneapolis airport."
"I maintain my innocence, and currently my attorneys and I are reviewing the decision and looking into the possibility of appealing," Craig said. "I would like to thank all of those who have continued to support me and my family throughout this difficult time."
Craig has 30 days to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision.
In front of the appellate court earlier this fall, Craig's lawyers argued that mailed-in guilty pleas don't contain sufficient evidence to allow a court to find that a crime was committed. The appeals court disagreed, saying that a guilty plea is "not invalid merely because it is entered in writing."
The court also disagreed with Craig's argument that the record doesn't show that because there's no signature on the paperwork, the lower court judge who accepted his plea never reviewed the full complaint by the arresting officer with detailed information about his arrest.
Craig didn't provide the Court of Appeals with a transcript of the court proceedings the day that the lower court judge accepted the plea, the justices noted. So, the appeals court wrote, it had no way of determining whether a judge reviewed everything, including the full complaint written up by the arresting officer.
That made moot the point that Craig's lawyers were hoping to make: that there was no evidence in the record reviewed by the judge who accepted Craig's guilty plea that he was in the bathroom for anything other than the legitimate reason.
The appellate court also was unsympathetic to Craig's argument that his conduct in the bathroom that day was protected by free speech. The disorderly conduct statutes are not overly broad, the court found, because the law requires that someone who's charged with such an offense be aware that his or her language or conduct could arouse "alarm, anger or resentment" in others.
Craig's conduct was "invasive of the privacy of another and may properly be prohibited as disorderly conduct," the court found.
"A person using a restroom stall is such a 'captive' audience with substantial privacy interests that would be intolerably invaded even by communications less potentially offensive than sexual solicitations," the justices wrote.
Earlier this year, the Senate Ethics Committee chastised Craig with a letter of public admonishment and described his arrest as "improper conduct" reflecting poorly on the U.S. Senate.
Craig tried to "evade legal consequences" for his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge by trying to keep the news of the arrest quiet and attempting to withdraw his plea only after it became public, the bipartisan committee determined in February. Its members also found that Craig broke a Senate rule by failing to seek the committee's permission before spending more than $200,000 in leftover campaign money to try to overturn his plea and clear his name.
After that, Craig stopped using money from his re-election account for his legal bills. He opened up a legal expense fund in June under the name "The Fund for Justice." An October filing showed that the fund had raised $4,645.
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