No Comment, Quotation — January 2, 2010, 8:57 am

Balzac–Prosecutors and the Public Trust


Aucune puissance humaine, ni le roi, ni le garde des sceaux, ni le premier ministre ne peuvent empiéter sur le pouvoir d’un juge d’instruction, rien ne l’arrête, rien ne lui commande. C’est un souverain soumis uniquement à sa conscience et à la loi. En ce moment où philosophes philanthropes et publicistes sont incessamment occupés à diminuer tous les pouvoirs sociaux, le droit conféré par nos lois au juge d’instruction est devenu l’objet d’attaques d’autant plus terribles qu’elles sont presque justifiées par ce droit, qui, disons-le, est exorbitant. Néanmoins, pour tout homme sensé, ce pouvoir doit rester sans atteinte ; on peut, dans certains cas, en adoucir l’exercice par un large emploi de la caution ; mais la société, déjà bien ébranlée par l’inintelligence et par la faiblesse du jury (magistrature auguste et suprême qui ne devrait être confiée qu’à des notabilités élues), serait menacées de ruine si l’on brisait cette colonne qui soutient tout notre droit criminel. L’arrestation préventive est une de ses facultés terribles, nécessaire, dont le danger social est contrebalancé par sa grandeur même. D’ailleurs, se défier de la magistrature est un commencement de dissolution sociale. Détruisez l’institution, reconstruisez la sur d’autres bases ; demandez, comme avant la Révolution, d’immense garantie de fortune à la magistrature ; mais croyez-y ? n’en faites pas l’image de la société pour y insulter… Là gît le vice de l’institution actuelle.

No human authority–neither the king, nor the lord privy seal, nor the prime minister, can encroach on the power of the examining magistrate; nothing can stop him, no one can control him. He is a monarch, subject
only to his conscience and the law. At present, as philosophers, philanthropists, and politicians constantly endeavor to reduce every social power, the rights conferred on the examining magistrates have become the object of attacks that are all the more serious because they are almost justified by those rights, which,
it must be acknowledged, are enormous. And yet, as every man of sense will admit, that power ought to remain unimpaired; in certain cases, its exercise can be dampened by a strong infusion of prudence; but society is already threatened by the ineptitude and weakness of the jury system–which is, in fact, the really supreme bench, and which ought to be composed only of the select among men–and it would be in danger of
ruin if this pillar were broken which now upholds our criminal procedure. Preventive detention is one of the terrible but necessary powers of which the risk to society is counterbalanced by its immense
importance. And besides, distrust of the criminal investigators in general marks the beginning of the end of any society. Destroy that institution, and reconstruct it on another basis; insist–as was the case before the
Revolution–that investigating judges produce a surety bond; but, at any cost, pay them your respect!… Do not make of them an object of ridicule!

Honoré de Balzac, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, pt iii: Où mènent les mauvais chemins (1847) in La Comédie humaine vol. 5, pp. 936-37 (M. Bouteron ed. 1952)(S.H. transl.)

One of the most distressing phenomena of the past decade—the “awful aughts”—was the systematic collapse of the ethics and standards of Justice Department lawyers. They entered the decade as popular culture heroes who vindicated the civil rights of their fellow citizens and put the bad guys in jail. But as the decade ended, evidence was amassed that federal prosecutors behaved unethically and sometimes illegally, that they wielded their impressive powers to persecute political opponents, undermined the very foundations of our legal system by issuing opinions that sought to make torture and brutality legal, they fabricated evidence to achieve convictions and suppressed evidence of innocence. The year ended with a dramatic opinion issued in the homicide prosecution of a group of Blackwater employees in the shooting of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007. The case was thrown out by an obviously angered federal judge. But the decision had nothing to do with the merits of the case against the Blackwater guards. Rather, in a 91-page-opinion, Judge Ricardo Urbina meticulously cataloged the unethical and improper conduct of federal prosecutors who were preparing to try the case. Because of the severity of their foul deeds—and not because of the innocence of the guards—the judge decided he had to reach to the ultimate sanction of dismissal of the case. This opinion followed only days after a similar decision rendered in a federal courthouse in Orange County, California, in the Broadcom prosecutions. The judge in that case likewise listed a long pattern of deceits, misrepresentations and extortions practiced by federal prosecutors–in one case pressuring a completely innocent man into a plea bargain arrangement. Only months earlier, the new attorney general, Eric Holder, recognized the gravity of misconduct by his public integrity staffers when he dropped the conviction of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. But in the cases involving former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, Mississippi lawyer Paul Minor and others, prosecutorial misconduct which is still more serious and better documented has already been exposed, but the Justice Department remains in a state of unseemly denial and inaction about it.

Federal prosecutors hold a public trust, and their discharge of this trust over the last decade amounts to an astonishing betrayal. In 1927, Julien Benda wrote in a scathing book of the “treason of the clercs.” “Les hommes dont la fonction est de défendre les valeurs éternelles et désintéressées, comme la justice et la raison, que j’appelle les clercs, ont trahi fonction au profit d’intérêts pratiques,” Benda wrote – “those whose function is the defense of eternal and disinterested values such as justice and reason, who I call ‘clercs,’ have betrayed their function for the benefit of practical interests.” But in America in the last decade, the betrayal was certainly no less sweeping than that which Benda described, and the base nature of the motivations was equally transparent. And who better exemplifies those who should be committed to defense of disinterested justice as a fundamental value of our society than the Justice Department lawyer?

But Balzac, that impassioned chronicler of the dawn of modernity, also recognized the fundamental importance of prosecutors who live to their professional calling. A solid prosecutor must value justice above other things, must disdain cheap careerism and hold the call of politics and its inclination to intrigues firmly at bay. These traits are essential if the prosecutor is to perform his proper function and serve society. Balzac’s warning is true. We may need to reform the office of the prosecutor, particularly by stripping from it the secrecy in which it now operates to the disadvantage of society. We may also need to insure that a number of the malefactors involved in the extravagant prosecutorial embarrassments of the last years are properly punished, to serve as examples for the others. And finally, we certainly need a Congress that pays careful attention to the conduct of prosecutors and exposes their misdeeds, in real time if necessary. The notion of prosecutors who live outside the sanitizing light of public inquiry and are beyond the checks and balances of the American Constitution has proven itself a miserable failure.

But there is no Rule of Law without prosecutors. No accountability of public officials. And no justice.

Listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture, op. 62 (1807) in a performance by Carlos Kleiber and the Bayerische Staatsorchester. Beethoven wrote this jarring music to accompany a performance of Hermann Joseph von Collin’s play about the Roman general from the early days of the republic who betrayed his city after feeling slighted by it. The music is dark and turbulent and well suited to the downbeat theme.

<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=””> <embed src=”” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object></p>

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada



May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
[Letter from Bentonville]
Citizen Walmart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From the July 2012 issue

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Dark Heights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.

Consume, Screw, Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us.”
Collage (detail) by David McLimans

Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:


Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.

Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!