Tuesday Talk*: The Queens Test

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.

24 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: The Queens Test

  1. wilbur

    I won’t be surprised if she gets elected, with the NYT endorsement in her pocket.

    I would definitely be surprised if she gets reelected, if she does indeed what she implies she gonna’ do, I must say “implies” because she is (wisely) short on specifics.

  2. Jake

    “If she doesn’t want to be a prosecutor, who will the victims of crime turn to for vindication of their interests and safety?”

    Did you listen to the first video you embedded? Sounds like she wants to prosecute real bad guys to me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ironically, the only group she says she’ll “hold accountable” are cops. That’s good enough for you?

      1. Jake

        No, that would not be enough. I heard a nod towards holding the ‘above the law’ crowd accountable too. I certainly don’t hear her say: “I will no longer prosecute crimes with actual victims”.

        I know I will be roundly spanked for this comment but I’m going for it anyway: I’m not the only person who believes criminal justice reform should include a decrease in prosecuting powerless people for victimless crimes and an increase in prosecuting powerful people for crimes that have victims. Often lots of victims in a single crime.

        You can tell me it’s a myth that people with power get away with stuff but I know that’s not true. I have experienced the benefits of connections and influence first hand on more than one occasion. I don’t need to accept any of the horrific stories of prosecutors abdicating their responsibility “to do justice” like, say, Jeffrey Epstein to know, for a fact, the current system is corrupt and biased to favor people who already have more than their fair share of resources and opportunity.

        But it seems you disagree. So, in the spirit of Tuesday Talk, I wonder if you’d finally throw a whole card and define what you think Criminal Justice Reform should look like?

        1. Ron

          Define what CJ Reform should look like? Reductio ad Jakum? You can’t be that simpleminded.

          1. Jake

            Ya’ll can laugh now, but mark my words: Changes are going to happen. If you don’t want to be involved, that’s on you.

  3. Pedantic Grammar Police

    She talks a lot about not prosecuting turnstile jumpers. Meanwhile MTA is so broke that they can’t afford to repair their 100-year-old tracks.

    I’m glad I moved back to Kooky California. It’s worse in some ways but at least we don’t have to watch out for falling subway trains.

    1. SHG Post author

      When did “vote for me and I won’t prosecute you” become a selling point for a DA candidate?

      1. Jake

        Since today. Let me be the first to tell you she won. Thewhole system is out of order. Expect more disruption.

        1. SHG Post author

          So it appears. There’s an old saying, be careful what you wish for, as you just might get it. There will be change. Whether that’s change for the better or worse remains to be seen.

      2. DaveL

        Voting for the person who isn’t going to boot-stomp your face is as old as voting itself. It’s the whole idea of voting for someone because they aren’t going to boot-stomp the faces of those other people, whom you dislike , that would be radical.

        1. SHG Post author

          One day you’re the perp. One day you’re the victim of the perp. Is one side right and the other wrong, or is the right answer somewhere between the two?

  4. David

    What makes this crazy is that after all the years of fighting the pendulum being way too far on the tough-0n-Crime side, it’s swung wildly to the opposite extreme. Since they say racism is race plus power, does that make Caban a raging racist once she’s in power, as she’s clearly race obsessed.

    And what does she plan to do when a black guy whacks an old black woman for her purse? Does she not grasp that crime happens and its the prosecutor’s job to prosecute the guy who did it?

    1. SHG Post author

      If I had to pick a side to be excessive, it would be hers. But there are others running, with stronger qualifications, who aren’t as extreme, so it’s not a matter of one extreme or another. But will that matter when the votes are counted today? I don’t know.

  5. Shannon

    If this happened 10 years ago, wouldn’t you have criticized this “kid lawyer” for not gaining experience first?

    What happened?

    1. SHG Post author

      I definitely would have, but these are interesting times. Competency is a distant second to ideology.

  6. JRP

    A day late to this,

    She has a duty, to prosecute laws. If she doesnt like them she should run for congress and change them.

    It seems that both sides but especially progressives have started trying to find other ways than elections to enact thier policies. I think to far down this road opens us to sever extremes from either side.

  7. Nemo

    I’m almost certainly wrong, of course, but I think a significant question on this topic is that if she’s elected, would she be significantly worse than her predecessors over, say, the last 20 years? If so, how many of them?

    If she’s likely to be worse than all of them, then she shouldn’t be elected, but if she’s no worse than the average, so what? If she sucks, but sucks about as much but in a way different than them all, what then?

    Best regards, one and all,


    1. SHG Post author

      When you hold an election, the question is usually which of the candidates before you would be the best. As to your question, the old DA, Richard Brown, held the post for 28 years and died in office. He was old school awful. I would hope any of the Dem candidates would be better because the bar was so low, but will if there’s to be a paradigm shift in the approach, it may prove to be the one thing that’s worse than her predecessor or better, or could have been better but for the individual’s lack of competence and experience in implementing it.

      In other words, like most things in life, it’s never that simple.

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