Daily Archives: July 24, 2011

The responsibility of choice

Discretion is such an ugly word. It sounds officious, vague and un-engaging. I prefer to call it choice. Because that’s what prosecutors have: the power to choose whether to prosecute someone or not. It is that power to choose that is a manifestation of the great power that prosecutors wield: the power to deprive someone of their life, their liberty, their reputation.

This inherent ability has been discussed elsewhere lately, in Scott’s post where he gives two examples of poor choices made by prosecutors and in this NPR interview with former state judiciary committee co-chair Mike Lawlor and today, in this piece in the NJ Star Ledger.

The Star-Ledger piece talks about prosecutorial discretion choice in the context of three recent high-profile criminal justice stories: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Casey Anthony and The Rocket and how all these cases seem to indicate the quest for justice has buckled under the pressure of the 24-hour sensationalist news cycle and the pressure to convict – when that same news media all but assumes that with every accusation comes a conviction – has subverted the true function of the prosecutor. I’ve written plenty about the impact and responsibility of the media in sensationalizing the criminal justice system, so I won’t go there in this post. This post is, I think, about the role of the prosecutor and the power of choice that they possess.

In penning this lament in the Star-Ledger, John Farmer, dean of Rutgers Law School (and a former prosecutor) relies heavily on the words of former Attorney General (and later Supreme Court justice) Robert Jackson uttered at a meeting of prosecutors, some of which I reproduce here:

“The prosecutor,” he reminded them, “has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous. He can have citizens investigated and, if he is that kind of person, he can have this done to the tune of public statements and veiled or unveiled intimations.”

“With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes,” the attorney general said, “a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. … It is in this realm … that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group … or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.”