The California state bar recently handed down an unprecedented three-year suspension of the law license of a Santa Clara County prosecutor who was, “charged with committing misconduct in four criminal cases dating back to 1995, including misleading judges, defying court orders and concealing critical evidence from defense lawyers in pursuit of convictions.”
So what’s the reaction from this prosecutors’ peers? Shame? Embarrassment? Assurance that he’s an unusual case? Promises to institute stricter guidelines to prevent prosecutors from going astray in the future? Of course not. Their reaction is to scale back the state bar’s power to discipline.
In the wake of a disciplinary hearing against a top local prosecutor, the union that represents Santa Clara County prosecutors and public defenders is asking the California District Attorneys Association to sponsor a bill that would essentially curb the power of the state bar to punish all lawyers.
The proposed changes in state bar procedures also come at a time when the disciplinary board and state appellate judges are responding aggressively to questionable official conduct in local criminal cases examined in a 2006 Mercury News series on courtroom misconduct. In recent months, others in the office have received notices that their conduct is under review by the bar.
The proposal also follows the findings of a statewide commission on the roles that both prosecution and defense misconduct play in wrongful convictions.
The details of the proposal are still under discussion, but the draft calls for a two-year statute of limitations for bringing any charges against attorneys. Currently, the bar has latitude in bringing charges, especially if an attorney has concealed facts. The charges in Field’s case date back more than 10 years.
They also want to cap the financial hit prosecutors can take due to misconduct investigations, and reimburse prosecutors who are eventually acquitted.
Cognitive dissonance, anyone?
Given that it’s pretty much impossible to sue a prosecutor, professional discipline is really the only available deterrent to misconduct. It’s telling that they’d want to take that away, too.