In a system that is built on accountability, the punishment for violations of accepted standards is notoriously one-sided. Defendants, almost exclusively, are the ones penalized for failing to conform their behavior to the standardized and socially accepted norms. With good reason, obviously. But the criminal justice system isn’t a one-team sport: there are also judges and prosecutors. And all participants in this game are guilty of misconduct, albeit less frequently. Yet the ratio of transgressions to punishment is inexplicably lopsided when it comes to rule-breaking by officialdom. Courts that find “prosecutorial
misconduct impropriety” rarely, if ever, impose punishment.
I wrote almost a month ago about the CT Supreme Court’s extraordinary decision in State v. Patrick Lenarz, in whose case the prosecutor received, read and utilized at trial confidential documents from the defendant to his attorney. The Lenarz case is remarkable not only for the strong language in the decision, but the fact that the Court was so troubled by the actions of the prosecutor that it ordered Lenarz released back in November, after oral argument. In fact, the Court found that the violation by the prosecutor was so egregious that it ordered that the prosecution be dismissed.
But still, this is a prosecutor we’re talking about. The Court doesn’t bother to name the offending prosecutor in its decision, but if you know how to read CT appellate opinions, you know that the last prosecutor listed in the “credits” is usually the prosecutor who handled the matter at the trial court. It is a rather tiresome feature of our appellate courts that they will not hesitate to name defense counsel when evaluating claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, but when it comes to conduct by a prosecutor that is “extremely troubling”, they still cannot bring themselves to put the name down in print, even though the significance of the prosecuting arm of the state using illegal and unethical measures to secure convictions against the citizenry is something far more egregious and dangerous.
As if this coddling and protection of prosecutors wasn’t infuriating enough, the laissez faire attitude toward such impropriety gets even worse with the complete failure of any entity to impose sanctions on that prosecutor. It is a common refrain heard around the criminal justice system that prosecutors are rarely – if ever – held accountable for their “extremely troubling” acts of misconduct. I mean, c’mon, if a court isn’t even going to name them, then do you think there’s ever be any sanctions imposed?
That’s the subject of a powerful article in the CT Law Tribune by former Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mark Dubois, who comments on Lenarz and the failure of courts to correct this misbehavior:
One part of the decision troubled me though. In Lenarz, the majority noted that it was “extremely troubled” by the conduct of the state’s attorney because the communications were clearly of an attorney/client nature, even being noted that at the top of some of the pages. Yet despite being troubled, the court imposed no discipline on the prosecutor.
Professor (I took one of his classes once, so he’ll always be “Professor” to me) Dubois then points out something that I was unaware of, that’s rather surprising:
Practice Book 2-32(a)(2)(F) allows the Grievance Committee to screen out and dismiss any case where the alleged conduct occurred in a court, “and the court has been made aware of the allegations of misconduct and has rendered a decision finding misconduct” or has either determined that no misconduct has occurred or has declined to refer the matter to the Grievance Committee. Yes, “or” can be used conjunctively—“would you like cream or sugar in your coffee?” — but the common use of the word is as a disjunctive. The use of “or” instead of “and” in the rule seems to suggest a presumption that if a court finds misconduct, it will impose discipline. The Grievance Committee, being only an “arm of the court,” cannot act where a court has already taken jurisdiction and found misconduct, even if no discipline is imposed.
Here’s the relevant Practice Book section:
(a) Any person, including disciplinary counsel, or a grievance panel on its own motion, may file a written complaint, executed under penalties of false statement, alleging attorney misconduct whether or not such alleged misconduct occurred in the actual presence of the court. Complaints against attorneys shall be filed with the statewide bar counsel. Within seven days of the receipt of a complaint the statewide bar counsel shall review the complaint and process it in accordance with subdivisions (1), (2) or (3) of this subsection as follows:
(2) refer the complaint to the chair of the statewide grievance committee or an attorney designee of the chair and to a nonattorney member of the committee, and the statewide bar counsel in conjunction with the chair or attorney designee and the nonattorney member, shall if deemed appropriate, dismiss the complaint on one or more of the following grounds:
(F) the complaint alleges misconduct occurring in a superior court, appellate court or supreme court action and the court has been made aware of the allegations of misconduct and has rendered a decision finding misconduct or finding that either no misconduct has occurred or that the allegations should not be referred to the statewide grievance committee;
Prof. Dubois interprets that to mean that once a court has found misconduct and imposed no sanction, the Grievance Committee must not take further action against the prosecutor. But I don’t see where in the rule it says that the Committee cannot proceed with disciplinary proceedings against the prosecutor based on the record created by the appellate decision. I’m assuming the professor knows more than I do in this area, so I invite him to correct my mistake.
Even if that is the case, it certainly does not divest the court of its authority to refer the matter to the Grievance Committee for disciplinary proceedings. And we all know that never happens:
A quick Westlaw search reveals many cases where courts have found misconduct by prosecutors, ranging from Brady violations to evidence destruction to calling defendants “fiends” and “rats.” While some of the misconduct has been sufficient to warrant new trials or dismissals, none if it that I can think of has resulted in discipline of the lawyers involved. Perhaps the appellate courts think that the Grievance Committee will clean up that loose end. But it never happens. And as prosecutors are immunized from civil liability, the conduct goes unpunished.
This indifference approach to ethical violations in the most grievous of settings is another symptom of a system that places finality above all else, that condones the erosion of individual rights and liberties in favor of a more authoritarian society. With the legislature unable to act, it will be up to the Courts – well populated with former prosecutors – to bring accountability in an impartial way. If the Chief Justice is indeed serious about restoring faith and integrity in our justice system, she might want to go further than characterizing the conduct as “extremely troubl[ing]” and actually hold those people who undermine that same integrity responsible.
Don’t hold your breath.