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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lawyers Behaving Very, Very Badly

The defense position in a current U.S. Supreme Court case is beyond belief. Iowa prosecutors, charged with having framed two men for murder with fabricated evidence, are arguing that (1) there is no Constitution right not to be framed and that (2) prosecutors are immune to such charges. The language of their argument could be altered, without altering its sense one iota, to read that (1) innocence or guilt is not a matter of law and that (2) prosecutors are above the law. There is no reason to look for specific language in the Constitution to decide this case because everything in the Constitution assumes that we are a country of law and that no one is above the law.

If prosecutors around the country are fearful that a decision against the Iowa prosecutors would open the door to a rash of similar lawsuits, all that shows is that too many prosecutors have been behaving badly and need to be reminded that they are public servants. Two sides to every case? In this one, the two sides are Right and Wrong.

Read the exact wording and see the outcome on this official site.

12 comments:

Barbara said...

OK, this seems pretty open and shut. I want to hear somebody in defense of the prosecutors.

P. J. Grath said...

My ears are open, if anyone wants to elaborate on a defense. I just can't imagine what argument can be made to the effect that prosecuting justice requires subverting justice and must be allowed. Lawyers, what say you?

Gerry said...

I have another question, too. Isn't subornation of perjury a criminal offense?

P. J. Grath said...

As far as I know, yes. One friend wrote me that "prosecutors have, and should have, immunity from civil liability for acts committed in the course of their jobs. Imagine if any criminal defendant could sue a prosecutor, just for prosecuting him. Bad idea." But he also says that prosecutors in this case "committed specific-intent crimes" and should therefore be, themselves, prosecuted. Instead of worrying about what prosecutors around the country will think, shouldn't we worry about what American citizens will think, not to mention citizens of other countries around the world who look up to our rule of law?

P. J. Grath said...

And read this related story:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-oped1104pittsnov04,0,6284763.column

I remember this story, this young man, and I can hardly believe he is still in prison, now 49 years old.

P. J. Grath said...

So, Gerry, Barbara--if the prosecutor is immune from civil liability but has committed a criminal offense, who prosecutes the prosecutors?

Maiya Willits said...

What a joke. Except soooo not funny. Next time I'm with my lawyer friends I'm going to want to talk about this. And yes, the distinction does seem to be in the commission of "intent specific crimes," for which of course they should be held accountable.

P. J. Grath said...

But again, if they cannot be sued, they must be prosecuted, and it's hardly to be expected that they would prosecute themselves.

dmarks said...

And I just heard something on the Dennis Miller program about an evil prosecutor (or succession of them) in a county in Mississippi who refuse entirely to prosecutre domestic violence offenders, along with other crime categories.

P. J. Grath said...

It will be interesting to see, dmarks, what comes out today in the Court's deliberations. What's becoming apparent already is how much room there is for desperately needed reform all around the country.

Mark said...

I did a little more reading-up on this case, including the USDOJ's friend of the court brief, filed in support of the prosecutors. I'm throwing in the following, just to maybe possibly show that things aren't exactly as bad as they seem. Perhaps.

There is a very narrow question of law here, namely: are the prosecutors immune from civil liability? One can argue that they are, and still argue that they should be prosecuted. These are two completely different, and unrelated, issues. (In its amicus curiae brief, the USDOJ says there are other avenues of relief available to the criminal defendants who were convicted because of the perjured testimony--and apparently (I wouldn't know, but I'll accept for the moment that they do) prosecutors have unlimited immunity for conduct arising out of their work as prosecutors. This is an interesting point, because one of the questions in this case is, were they acting as prosecutors, or as investigators? It seems that there is a time-line issue at work, or at play: what they do before charges are filed--which can be seen as investigative work--and what they do after charges are filed, say--which is when they put on their prosecutor hats (black leather, comes to a floppy point, with a mask that covers the top half of the face, with eye cut-outs. The original design, without the eye cut-outs, resulted in too many injuries.)

All of which is to say...what? As usual when a legal question comes up, everybody--and by everybody I mean, "everybody else, plus me"--gets all het up, usually without knowing the law, or the facts of the case, or even the proper construction of the argument.

If the original article had started out by saying the wrongly-convicted defendants, to use a term of convenience, received monetary awards from the state, and the prosecutors were allowed to plead guilty to charges of suborning perjury, but the courts ruled the freed defendants cannot sue the prosecutors as individuals...would we be getting so worked up? I doubt it. (I'm not saying this is what happened...just hypothetically.)

Of course, one of the main reasons we hate attorneys, going back centuries and centuries, is that they get to use a secret language, one that nobody else understands. It's when we think we do, and find out we didn't, that we really get honked off at them. Later, I'll explain the US legislative system to you.

P. J. Grath said...

No, I would not be het up if they, the prosecutors, had confessed guilt. It's this business of saying "We can do whatever we want, and there's nothing anyone can do about it" that gets my goat. I'll be interested to hear what the Supremes came up with today. One of them said yesterday that there were "other avenues" for punishing prosecutors. I'd like that spelled out, too.

Mark, could you send us a scan of the prosecutor's hat design? Sounds stylin' to me.