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Last week the Supreme Court heard argument in a case that seeks to establish a rule of accountability for prosecutors who run amok. It arises from a gross injustice. In 1977, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were arrested for the murder of John Schweer, a retired police officer in Council Bluffs, Iowa. They were convicted and spent 25 years in prison. Then it came out that they were innocent of the crime, and that the prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence and cajoled and possibly offered money to a witness to give bogus testimony. Harrington and McGhee are now seeking compensation from the prosecutors under a federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but they’re running smack into the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity.
No organization has more at stake in this fight than the Department of Justice, and Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal was there in court to make their case. There is no “free-standing due process right not to be framed,” he insisted. Judge Stephen Breyer cut him off with obvious dismay. “There is no free-standing right? There is just a right not to convict a person with made-up evidence.” This framing of the issue of framing puts the emphasis where it belongs. The case will turn less on the rights of the two men who spent most of their lives in prison than on the rights of their prosecutors. The law as Katyal spins it gives prosecutors a right to game the legal system and commit crimes in the process without accountability to their victims. Can that possibly be the law? Dahlia Lithwick gives us an excellent summation of the oral argument in “The Framers on the Framers.”
Promoters of prosecutorial immunity offer predictable arguments that devalue justice. In their world, the Court needs to focus on the “realities” of an overworked criminal justice system, whose success is measured by the number of convictions it cranks out. In 2006, Katyal notes, there were 14.4 million arrests and 1.1 million felony convictions. If the courts have to entertain a suit every time prosecutors fabricate some evidence, how will we cope? Moreover, Katyal argues, “if prosecutors have to worry at trial that every act they undertake will somehow open up the door to liability, then they will flinch in the performance of their duties and not introduce that evidence.” But Katyal forgets the flip side. If prosecutors have absolute immunity, what will stop them from using evidence that they may have fabricated or created through undue influence? Shouldn’t prosecutors hesitate before committing wrongful, possibly criminal acts?
Still, the Justice Department is on a roll. Over the last decade it has successfully advanced doctrines of official unaccountability across the board. The Second Circuit’s decision in the Arar case will stand as a monument to these efforts. Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas have a great appetite for immunity for government actors. They remind us periodically that the Constitution makes no absolute guarantees of justice–unless, of course, we’re talking about corporations, in which case the Constitutional guarantees suddenly become extravagant. Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg all engaged in questioning suggesting they were taking quite a different approach. As usual, the question is likely to come down to Kennedy, a conservative Californian at the court’s center-right middle ground.
The argument for prosecutorial immunity also rests heavily on the ability of professional organs to regulate themselves. This means the Department of Justice above all others. But the last decade has seen an explosion of prosecutorial misconduct in cases around the country. Some arise from a prosecutor’s natural longing to secure a conviction and close a case, but the U.S. attorneys scandal also ripped the cover off a widespread practice over the last eight years of bringing and squelching prosecutions for purely partisan political purposes. Indeed, in what is now the single most prominent case, involving former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, credible allegations from within the prosecution team itself establish that the same abuses occurred as in the case now before the Supreme Court: bogus evidence was used, and a witness was improperly cajoled to give bad testimony. Yet when this evidence came out, the Justice Department launched a shocking vendetta against the internal whistleblower and quickly swept the matter under the carpet.
The doctrine of prosecutorial immunity may be about to take a hard fall. That would be a curious development in one of the most conservative Supreme Courts of the last century. If so, it will reflect not only concern about the accountability of prosecutors, but also a growing sense that the Justice Department is not doing its job in reining in those who misbehave.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:
A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”