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On June 20, 2023, Hunter Biden's legal team publicly announced a proposed plea agreement to plead guilty to certain criminal charges. On July 26, a federal judge rejected the proposed arrangement.

Was Biden's legal team legally required to publicly announce the proposed plea bargain before it was validated by the judge? If so, what is the motivation for that law, and if not, what was their reasoning for doing so?

It seems to me that publicly announcing the proposed deal has a big downside risk and no upside.

If the judge accepts the proposal, then neither side seems to gain anything from announcing it ahead of time. But if the judge rejects the proposal (as in fact ended up happening), then Biden's position seems enormously weakened. If he changes his plea to not guilty and goes to trial, then realistically, most of the jurors will know that he was publicly prepared to plead guilty, which could certainly make them less likely to vote to acquit. (Even if in principle, jurors are instructed to ignore anything about the case that they've learned outside of the trial, and those with extensive knowledge of the case are screened out, in practice that seems unrealistic for a case as high-profile as this one; the information was on the front page of most major American newspapers.)

And even if Biden decides to take another guilty plea, then the mere fact that he is now (arguably) much less likely to be acquitted in court means that the government now has much more leverage to demand whatever terms they want.

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    Note: any discussion of Biden's actual guilt or innocence, any potential conflicts of interest that the U.S. government may have, impact on elections, etc. are out of scope for this question and off-topic. I'm just trying to understand the process requirements and procedural strategy behind Biden's legal team's move. Aug 21, 2023 at 15:41

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For the plea deal to be considered by the judge, it had to be disclosed in court to the judge. Only in extremely extraordinary circumstances would court proceedings be closed to the public. However, there was no requirement for a separate public announcement.

The details of the plea arrangement were detailed in a memorandum of argument submitted to the court and the court ordered that this document be publically docketed (on Aug 2). The details were also discussed in open court and can be read in the transcript (from July 26).

You can follow the proceedings on courtlistener.

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No, there was no legal requirement that the plea agreement be announced. Practically, it is unlikely that in a high profile case like this a plea agreement would be reached and no details would leak before the hearing. So the joint announcement was likely primarily intended to get a set of facts (and interpretations) out into the press that both sides were comfortable with.

If the plea was rejected, Biden's position wasn't weakened by the announcement. Any potential jurors that became aware he was prepared to plead guilty to some charges would have become aware of that fact when the plea agreement was rejected. Given that this is a high profile case, it is unlikely that an additional story or two between the announcement of the plea agreement and the rejection of that agreement would change many minds. Both stories were front page news. Potentially, getting the announcement out rather than having it leak in bits and pieces helped Biden's legal team retain a bit more control of the narrative.

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  • Sorry, I didn't just to mean to ask whether the plea offer itself has to be public, but also whether the judge's response has to be public. I understand why an affirmative decision by a judge to accept a plea offer is publicly available information, since that gives the final resolution of the case - but it seems to me that perhaps the offer itself and a negative decision by the judge should not be public, since that does not give a final resolution to the case, and the (public) fact that the defendant was prepared to plead guilty could prejudice the jury in a future trial. Aug 22, 2023 at 0:59
  • @VeryTinyBrain - There is a strong presumption that court proceedings are public. In theory, the judge could choose to seal records of the case, not allow reporters in the courtroom, etc. But I can't imagine a legal rationale that would hold up when reporters inevitably appealed. Plus, if you were somehow to seal records, you'd have to deal with information leaking and rampant speculation which would likely be more prejudicial for a potential juror. Better to get it all out in one day than to have weeks of speculation and leaks. Aug 22, 2023 at 2:28

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