I’m going to admit it from the outset: I admire Tiffany Cabán because she’s got guts. She’s running for District Attorney of Queens, and it takes courage to do so in general, and exceptional courage to do so given Cabán’s circumstances.
She’s got minimal legal experience, having been admitted to practice in 2013 and working as a line public defender since then. She’s never supervised anyone, never run a shop, never had to deal with the politics of running a big city district attorney’s office. She’s never prosecuted anyone for anything. And still, she’s running. Cabán has moxie coming out her ears, and that deserves some serious kudos. There aren’t many people who would expose themselves to the rigors of a campaign given her exceptional dearth of qualifications.
What she has is two things: impeccable progressive positions and, as she promotes, the correct identity as a “queer Latina.” She’s been curiously endorsed by the New York Times, while the Queens County Bar Association found her “unqualified,” though why isn’t at all clear. Is that because she didn’t pay her dues as a lawyer to the big bar machers or something else? She’s gotten the endorsement of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Linda Sarsour.
In a word, Cabán is running a “decarceral” campaign, and there’s much to respect there, even if doubts about the efficacy of progressive prosecutorial policies linger. But what’s missing, and I’ve looked, is any suggestion that she wants to be a prosecutor. It appears that she wants to be elected district attorney to not be a prosecutor. Therein lies the rub.
That this race reflects key policy choices between progressive transformation of the prosecutorial function from the past “tough on crime” and mass incarceration goals is, from a defense lawyer’s perspective, a significant positive shift. But that’s not all it reflects.
Is it enough that Cabán toes the progressive party line? Should it matter that she’s a “queer Latina”? Does her lack of experience, as a lawyer, a prosecutor, a manager, matter? If she doesn’t really want to be a prosecutor, then why run for district attorney? If she doesn’t want to be a prosecutor, who will the victims of crime turn to for vindication of their interests and safety?
Justice Robert Jackson famously told federal prosecutors that their job was to “do justice.” Of course, what that means is more a matter of whose “justice” one is doing than some vague ideology. Play hardball but not lowball is certainly a critical part of it, but will Cabán play hardball when that’s what’s needed of the district attorney? Does she know how?
Cabán deserves enormous credit for taking the chance of getting crushed, being ripped to shreds, being humiliated, by running for District Attorney. She deserves credit for rejecting the traditional tough talk and fear-mongering that long worked to put prosecutor candidates in office. But is that good enough? Going forward, are messy details like competence and experience no longer as important as ideology and identity?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.