The criminal justice system functions reasonably well in most cases. The problem is that it is administered by individuals, and human nature being what it is people don't always do the right thing. Prosecutors and judges have a tremendous amount of power; unfortunately they don't always exercise that power well. This is a real problem for prosecutors, many of who are young and don't have the benefit of wisdom that can only be obtained through living. The idea that a 26 year old prosecutor is making decisions that affect the rest of someone's life ought to send chills down the spine of most people.
But that's not the point of this post. With so much power it's easy to see how it can go to the head of someone who is not well grounded - as the old saying goes "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The end result is that some prosecutors can come to believe they are the law. Which brings us to the subject of this post, which is the recent controversy in Dallas County.
It seems that the District Attorney - someone who has done a lot a good things for criminal justice - decided that the criminal records of police officers should not be disclosed. Julia Hayes is a county court judge who didn't believe that was the law - which is what judges are supposed to do. In a recent trial the defense lawyer asked for the criminal history of all witnesses - a standard request. The assistant district attorney - Keena Miller - refused to turn over records for the officers. She continued to refuse even after the Judge ordered her to do so. The judge then did what judges do - she held Ms. Miller in contempt.
If that was all that happened there wouldn't be much of a story. What happened next is the story. The District Attorney sent Judge Hayes a letter directing her to appear before the grand jury; and what's more, she was the target of an investigation into official oppression. By coincidence, she was asked to appear the same day - and before - the hearing she had scheduled on the contempt order.
This is definitely a new one for me. I didn't realize that if the DA didn't agree with a ruling you could indict them. I naively thought that's what we have appellate courts for. Apparently I forgot one thing - the District Attorney is the law; the argument is simple - we are right, and if you don't agree then you must be abusing your authority.
Craig Watkins has done some good things with his conviction integrity unit, but that doesn't mean he gets a pass. I hope common sense prevails, because this is not going to go well for him. If he doesn't believe he can be forced to turn over criminal histories, let him appeal and get a decision. Don't shortcut the process, and put yourself above the judicial system.
Fortunately, this is a rare exception. But is a symptom of a bigger problem that we need to be aware of, and guard against. The problem is making sure there are checks on authority - especially when peoples lives are at stake. The District Attorney is not at the top of the totem pole; they are simply one of the participants in the justice system, just like defense attorneys and judges.