Rollins’ Good Intentions and Bad Question

There can be little question but that her election as a serious reform prosecutor acknowledged her plans to not prosecute a list of offenses that constituted crimes. Suffolk County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Rachel Rollins was up front about it. She campaigned to be the first black female prosecutor and she provided the list of crimes she would refuse to prosecute.

After being elected, but before taking office, she learned that not everyone was going to love her for it.

A group called the National Police Association (NPA) has filed an ethics complaint against Rollins — before she has even taken office. As Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law explained on Twitter, the complaint is utter nonsense. It’s based not on any actual ethical violations, but on Rollins’ campaign promise to not prosecute 15 low-level nonviolent offenses, ranging from public trespassing to drug possession.

The complaint wasn’t really a legitimate effort, as much as a press release masquerading as a complaint. And it recognized as much. Just as Rollins was elected by voters who were told of her plans, those whose livelihoods were built on the quick and dirty busts for low-level offenses saw their career prospects dim.

So why would a group such as the NPA be so opposed to Rollins’ proposal? Well, for starters, if police officers stop arresting people for low-level offenses, there would be less for police officers to do, which could well result in fewer police officers. In some jurisdictions, officers are evaluated based on how many stops and arrests they make, mostly because those are easier things to measure than how effective they are at preventing crime.

But the joke here was that Rollins hadn’t yet done anything. She couldn’t. She had yet to take office, had yet to implement any of her proposals. There can be no such thing as an anticipatory ethical violation. Even so, Radley Balko argues that this wouldn’t be an ethical issue, but a policy issue, and since Rollins was elected based upon her policy position not to prosecute 15 offenses, inter alia, it’s entirely vaccuous.

Of course, whether it’s purely policy is unclear. The job of prosecutor isn’t a policy making job, but an executive function. There’s plenty of discretion in the execution of the job, but rejecting wholesale the dictates of the legislature as to what conduct constitutes an offense has some separation of powers problems. Discretion in individual cases is recognized as part of the prosecutorial function; refusal to acknowledge the policy decisions of the legislative branch of government when you don’t like them is another matter.

But there is another question raised by Rollins’ election, and it was expressed by Rollins herself:

Rachael Rollins stood before 50 union employees, many of them black and Latino, and revealed a provocative question she planned to ask prosecutors seeking to keep their jobs when she takes over as Suffolk district attorney.

“Why did you apply for a job where you would be putting people of color in jail every single day?” 

This is a bad question. A fallacious question. A dangerous question coming from a person elected to be a prosecutor. It’s little different than asking a criminal defense lawyer why they applied for a job that would put killers and rapists back on the street. It’s that awful a question.

Addressing her new “troops,” she backed off her ridiculous question.

“ ‘I want everybody here to relax,’ ” he recalled her saying. “ ‘Please don’t worry . . . for the most part, everybody is going to be fine.’ People walked out of there feeling pretty good.”

But the “tensions” remain, as she tries to be the reform District Attorney she was elected to be.

During her speech before the union, Rollins, 47, laid out her vision for the office. She pledged to assign more detectives of color to the homicide unit, place more women in top positions, and hire people of all ages — from millennials to seniors — for jobs such as secretary, investigator, and victim witness advocate.

“I want my office to look like this room,” Rollins told the union employees.

There remains a simplistic view of what’s wrong with the system and what will fix it. There are “detectives of color” on the job, and getting a bullet in the head by one of them kills just as well as a detective of, what’s the right way to say it, no color. There have been “women in top positions,” like Linda Fairstein, who was instrumental in coercing false confessions from the Central Park Five.

The narrative of the shallow, that black skin and female genitalia is all one needs to know about a person to recreate the system, isn’t a substitute for hard thought and real answers. Is Rollins just playing her audience, or does she actually not grasp that race and gender isn’t a magic bullet for justice?

Justice Jackson summed up the job of prosecutor “to do justice,” by which he meant that they could play hardball, but not lowball. Rollins’ rhetoric is that she wants to play softball if she’s going to play ball at all. Whether that’s what she really plans to do, however, isn’t yet clear.

“I think she will take an evenhanded approach, notwithstanding some of the rhetoric during the campaign that has some law enforcement people concerned,” Kelly said. “She’s very practical.”

We need prosecutors. There are bad people out there. There are people who do bad things. There are victims. There are even “survivors,” who took the bullet and lived to identify the person who fired it. Sometimes they’re black and brown. Sometimes they’re white. Some are men and some are women. Some are even children.

How we deal with them, what best serves societal interests, should always be subject to scrutiny, but that they exist isn’t in dispute.

The job of prosecutor is to prosecute. They can be unduly harsh in their approach, charging crimes in excess of what the facts can prove, lacking the empathy to fit the punishment to the individual to serve the legitimate goals of sentence. Being dishonest in the presentation, and concealment, of evidence. Ignoring the constitutional rights of defendants. Prosecuting means to “do justice,” not just convict. Sometimes, convicting will be doing justice.

There may be some racist who applies for the job of “putting people of color in jail every single day,” but most apply for the job of prosecuting whoever committed an offense, regardless of their skin color, so that victims don’t suffer the ravages of crime. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if a District Attorney thinks otherwise, she shouldn’t be in the job. We need better prosecutors, but we still need prosecutors.

18 thoughts on “Rollins’ Good Intentions and Bad Question

  1. Scott Jacobs

    “Why did you apply for a job where you would be putting people of color in jail every single day?”“I didn’t. I applied for a job where I would be putting criminals in jail every single day. If you think that means ‘people of color’ that says far more about you than it does about me, and it means I really don’t need to be working here anymore. Good luck with the morons you end up with.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Some folks hate defense lawyers. Some folks hate prosecutors. A viable system needs both. Good ones, but both.

      1. Scott Jacobs

        I wonder what Rollins’s answer would be if the person she asked her question of responded with “I dunno… Why did you spend all that time and effort be to in charge of the people doing that?”

        1. SHG Post author

          As much as her question deserves no better than a snarky response, Rollins has a good answer: “So I could change it.”

  2. Guitardave

    I also think it would facilitate justice if she has the prosecutors offices painted a nice shade rose/pink.

    1. SHG Post author

      People keep telling my symbols matter. Then again, it’s a lot easier to paint the walls, or hire people based on race or gender, than actually fix problems, and fix them without creating new or worse problems. No innocent person feels better about being sentenced to life plus cancer because the DA’s office is painted pink.

      1. Guitardave

        “No innocent person feels better about being sentenced to life plus cancer because the DA’s office is painted pink.”

        Well of course…i was trying to snarkily point out how simplistic and empty one must be to think that if things look right, then they are right. You would think a person in this position would understand a thing or two about ‘hidden character flaws’ and never judging a book by its cover.

  3. B. McLeod

    Interesting that she would so characterize the job, suggesting that it shouldn’t be done at all. Why did she run for it?

    1. SHG Post author

      The most generous explanation is that she ran for it so someone who was horrible didn’t win. Or she liked the cool title.

  4. Jake

    Back in the ’90s, the magic bullet for justice in Suffolk Country Courts was knowing the right clerk’s appetites and how to get in touch with him. It helped if you had an Italian last name.

  5. RedditLaw

    SHG said, “But the joke here was that Rollins hadn’t yet done anything. She couldn’t. She had yet to take office, had yet to implement any of her proposals. There can be no such thing as an anticipatory ethical violation.”

    Oh, Mr. Greenfield, you sweet summer child.

    Feel free to direct your attention to the case of Ruth Neely, Municipal Court Judge of Pinedale, Wyoming. In the near immediate aftermath of the Obergefell decision, the local newspaper contacted Judge Neely (a lay magistrate) to solicit her opinion of same-sex marriage. In response, Judge Neely stated that she would decline to preside over the marriage of two same-sex individuals if approached at some future date. For expressing public badthink about a hypothetical scenario, the Wyoming Supreme Court publicly censured Judge Neely.

    Did Ruth Neely refuse to file any documents like Kim Davis? No. Did she bar the door to her chambers upon seeing two individuals of the same sex approaching to request a civil marriage? No. Yet, she was found to have brought justice into disrepute for expressing her opposition to participating in gay marriage as an “anticipatory ethical violation”.

    Nevertheless, I agree that the ethics complaint against Ms. Rollins is going nowhere. However, that is precisely due to those traits that you don’t think should apply, specifically that she is a progressive African American. If she were white and expressing conservative Christian views and incurred an ethics complaint for an “anticipatory ethical violation” due to her statements, the hammer would now be falling on her head.

    On the other hand, when New York finally adopts Rule 8.4(g), I anticipate that the bar discipline authority will have to devote two full-time staffers to comb through the archives of Simple Justice to document the voluminous badthink that you have accumulated in anticipatory violation thereof.

    1. SHG Post author

      Redditlaw is the perfect handle for this comment. I could explain the difference to you, about how a sitting judge expressing an opinion without a case and controversy before them is itself the ethical violation, but I trust lawyers will already know it and others can get their insights from redditlaw.

      1. RedditLaw

        The purpose of the comment was not to constitute an apologia for Ruth Neely, an attack on judicial ethics, or comment on same-sex marriage.

        Ruth Neely was not an attorney,she did not express hostility to gay or lesbian people as a class, she was taunted into committing her gaffe in the immediate aftermath of a tectonic shift in the law, and a few weeks thereafter, she herself contacted the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics for advice about the issue.

        The Commission’s response to her one improper public statement in twenty years was to impose a forty thousand dollar fine and demand her removal as a municipal court judge. Certainly, there is nothing resembling bias in that action. Likewise, no one could conclude that they were dropping the hammer on an unpopular figure for badthink.

        The purpose of my comment was to draw your attention to the fact that “anticipatory ethical violations” for public statements for attorneys are right around the corner. If you think that they are going to remain solely within the confines of judicial ethics, I think that you are mistaken.

        Good work on sounding the claxon on Rule 8.4(g), however. As for RedditLaw, I am going to keep it as my handle. It’s groovy.

        1. SHG Post author

          Had this been a new post, I probably would have trashed your comment as going off topic, but since it’s aging, I don’t mind a little dive down the rabbit hole. As dives go, it’s not a bad one. Does Neely’s experience mean what you think it means? Hell, anything’s possible, but it doesn’t prove it’s yet a thing, and my spidey-sense doesn’t make me worry about it.

          And yes, it’s groovy indeed.

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