POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The lead editorial in the New York Times of June 6, 2016 addresses an important issue: the all-too-frequent failure or resistance of prosecutors to comply with their constitutional obligation to produce to the defense evidence in their possession that is potentially exculpatory or mitigating for a defendant. To address this issue, the editorial suggests that the United States Department of Justice should monitor the practices of district attorneys’ offices in which such problems have arisen in the past.
This proposal may have merit, but it contains at least one troubling issue indicated in the editorial’s title: “To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds.” This title and the editorial’s text suggest that the problem at issue is entirely or primarily the fault of local district attorneys’ offices and that such problems are absent or de minimis in the offices of federal prosecutors.
The editorial’s concern for fairness to individuals facing state criminal charges is to be applauded, but its proposal raises questions regarding federal prosecutors, who themselves are members of the Department of Justice, the department that would conduct the oversight. Will federal overseers, eager to advance their careers, monitor prosecutors in their own department as carefully as they review prosecutors in state offices? Will the Department’s oversight mandate be limited to local district attorneys’ offices? If so, will this foster an idea that federal prosecutors are exempt from scrutiny regarding their compliance with Brady v. Maryland?
In considering the editorial’s proposal, it is perhaps worth remembering an old question asked by the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians?