Prosecutorial Discretion: Transparency and Federalism

On April 18, the L.A. Times reported the United States Attorney was facing criticism from line prosecutors who said that they were being pressured to file “relatively insignificant criminal cases” for the purpose of driving up statistics that would lead to increased federal funding. The United States Attorney denied the accusation.

Whatever the facts, the question of how prosecutors exercise their considerable discretion to bring federal charges is critical. With mandatary minimum sentencing, prosecutorial decisions effectively determine the outcome. Federal substantive criminal law is chaotic – with overlapping offense categories that can apply to the same charged conduct, some with mandatory minimums and some without. And those decisions, unlike the decisions of judges that are regularly reviewed and criticized, are not transparent; they are the classic low visibility decisions, accountable for the most part only to the hierarchy within the local office and no further. Given that power, and lack of transparency, every effort must be made to keep the process from becoming politicized either to beef up statistics – the allegation here – or to go after political enemies –as was claimed in connection with the U.S. attorney firings.

Justice Scalia said it best dissenting in Morrison v. Olson , the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the independent counsel statute, the statute that later allowed Ken Starr to investigate President Clinton. “Law enforcement”, he noted, “is not blind.” No one can investigate everything, so the prosecutor has to pick his cases. And if he can choose his cases, he can choose his defendants, the “most dangerous power” of all. The risk is that the prosecutor will go after the people he thinks he should get, not the cases that need to be prosecuted. The “who” before the “what”.”

But another, perhaps even more important issue, is whether federal court is the appropriate place for the “relatively insignificant criminal” cases. There is certainly an important role for federal law enforcement. But, this effort must be done carefully. If not, it will only deepen the perceived inequities in the criminal justice system, inequities that lead one person to get a long federal sentence, while another is prosecuted in state court facing a lesser penalty for the same conduct, while one person faces a federal jury which may well be far less diverse than the state juries, etc. Moreover, too much reliance on federal prosecutions can undermine over the long haul the critical role of local law enforcement, which has the best intelligence and the closest ties to the community. And federal resources, as a colleague on my court has noted, are often best saved for more complex cases.

So whatever the facts in this case – and we only know the accusations – federal prosecution decisions are simply too important to the public, to the defendants, to be subject to in appropriate, external pressures.