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Mar 13 2014

Judge Who Thinks Prosecutors Should Follow Law Asked to Recuse Himself

Radley Balko, one of the very few journalists who actually pay attention to things like prosecutorial misconduct, reports on a South Carolina judge who recently criticized prosecutors who don’t follow the law and told them that he would be sanctioning them if it happens in his court.

Late last year, South Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty joined Kozinski. At a state solicitors’ convention in Myrtle Beach, Beatty cautioned that prosecutors in the state have been “getting away with too much for too long.” He added, “The court will no longer overlook unethical conduct, such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and suppression of evidence. You better follow the rules or we are coming after you and will make an example. The pendulum has been swinging in the wrong direction for too long and now it’s going in the other direction. Your bar licenses will be in jeopardy. We will take your license.”

You’d think that there’s little here with which a conscientious prosecutor could quarrel. At most, a prosecutor might argue that Beatty exaggerated the extent of misconduct in South Carolina. (I don’t know if that’s true, only that that’s a conceivable response.) But that prosecutors shouldn’t suborn perjury, shouldn’t retaliate against political opponents, shouldn’t suppress evidence, and that those who do should be disciplined — these don’t seem like controversial things to say. If most prosecutors are following the rules, you’d think they’d have little to fear, and in fact would want their rogue colleagues identified and sanctioned.

Beatty had singled out one judicial district in particular, one in which several prosecutors had engaged in misconduct. The response from the solicitor who oversees prosecutors in that district is predictably absurd:

Beatty singled out South Carolina’s 9th Judicial District in particular. There’s a good reason for that: He noted in his talk that two prosecutors from that district, overseen by Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, had already been suspended for misconduct and at the time of his talk, another complaint was pending. A recent complaint by the state’s association of criminal defense lawyers recently laid out a list of other complaints (PDF) against Wilson’s office. (You can read Wilson’s response here.)

But Wilson took personal offense at Beatty’s comments. She accused him of bias and sent a letter asking him to recuse himself from criminal cases that come out of her district.

Prosecutors are always telling us that those who refuse to follow the law must be dealt with harshly in order to deter others from doing the same thing. And that applies to everyone, apparently, other than prosecutors.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    colnago80

    Apparently former prosecutor Nifong has a lot of imitators in South Carolina.

  2. 2
    doublereed

    The real problem is talking about the problem.

  3. 3
    Trebuchet

    Nancy Grace is going to be out for this judge’s blood. No prosecutor in the history of prosecution has ever done anything wrong, just as there’s never been an innocent defendant in the history of jurisprudence.

  4. 4
    D. C. Sessions

    The first rule of Prosecutor’s Club …

  5. 5
    John Pieret

    Worse, from Balko’s article, is this:

    … at least 13 of the head prosecutors in the state’s 16 judicial districts, along with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, are asking for Beatty’s to be recused from criminal cases.

    When virtually an entire state’s prosecutorial arm objects to being held to the legal standard of conduct, the notion of “the rule of law” has entirely lost its meaning.

  6. 6
    zero6ix

    Do as they say, not as they do, sunrise, sunset, life goes on.

    *sigh*

    I’d probably be more outraged if this wasn’t so…par for the course. Is that the plan? Numb the citizenry with so many abuses of power that we stop caring?

  7. 7
    cynix

    So reminding a professional that they have a legal and ethical duty to follow the rules and laws they swore to uphold is somehow prejudicial to a prosecution?

    It would be easy to say “only in South Carolina” but in this case, I think, the only thing its fair to say is that “Only in South Carolina was a judge willing to stand up for the law and ethics”.

  8. 8
    Pierce R. Butler

    zero6 @ # 6: Is that the plan? Numb the citizenry with so many abuses of power that we stop caring?

    Why not? That same strategy has never failed since the Reaganistas committed themselves to it in 1981.

  9. 9
    Sastra

    cynix #7 wrote:

    It would be easy to say “only in South Carolina” but in this case, I think, the only thing its fair to say is that “Only in South Carolina was a judge willing to stand up for the law and ethics”.

    Perhaps. My daughter is in her 2nd year of law school … in South Carolina. Let’s hope it’s not the state, then, and this judge is not an outlier. I’m trusting her good judgement and long history of common sense.

  10. 10
    cynix

    It may not be an intentional plan but it can still be unconsciously pursued goal.

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