Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Politics of Prosecution

It has taken me a long time and many attempts to write this post and I am not certain of the reason. Possibly because this post deals with the inner workings of a district attorney's office. This does not deal with office politics or the politics that go into certain plea offers. This post is about the day-to-day life in a political office.

Every district attorney is a politician, whether they want to be or not. They face election every four years by the voters of the county. What that means is that every four years job security is an issue for certain employees of every office. If a new district attorney is elected, he has the discretion to fire everyone in the office, fire no one, or get rid of a select few. I serve at the pleasure of the district attorney. People look at government jobs and think long-term security, but that's not always the case.

I have been fortunate never to work in an office that has seen a contested district attorney election, and I hope that good fortune continues throughout my career. This is a glimpse into the office during a contested election year:

1) Employees receive constant solicitations to fundraisers from all parties running for the head office, which drain the pocketbook.
2) Employees fear political roulette. If they donate to the candidate that doesn't win, does that mean their job will be on the line?
3) Employees sometimes need to assist on campaigns, while abiding by the state rules. It's even worse when the persons running are colleagues who have developed into good friends. You feel you have to support that person, but what if they lose?
4) The rumor mill churns daily about who will stay, who will go, who will get promoted or demoted depending on which candidate wins.
5) Defendants might have better or worse plea offers depending on the elected district attorney.

The daily grind during an election year is wearing. It is generally true that the ones who worked the hardest on the campaigns or donated the most money are rewarded with higher positions in the office. It's a fact of life and not always a bad thing. A person running for office will have friends and colleagues who believe in him or her and will work the hardest for that person. When the candidate wins, they will surround themselves with those they can trust. But to lower level assistants, it will look like the position was bought no matter what happens.

Those that attain the highest positions then have the greatest interest in seeing the district attorney stay in power because they will be replaced if a rival candidate wins. The cycle becomes one of self-preservation and always has a way of trickling down to the lower assistants, who might fear losing a job if a different DA wins election.

Even in non-election years, a district attorney must always think about raising money and the next election. That means unnecessary attention on certain cases and fundraising events every year. The district attorney is not a political office in the sense that it can provide much patronage or favor special interests, but still is required to raise money like a political office. So, who donates? Not the businesses because what's in it for them? Defense attorneys who like the DA's policies and the assistants who want to keep the DA in power either because they like their position or respect the direction of the office or both. Attendance and donations are not required of an assistant, but realistically who is going to refuse when their job might depend on it?

My position is pretty high in my office, but still a few rungs below the power players. I would most likely survive if a new DA was elected, but there is no guarantee I would be doing the same job at the same salary. A new DA fires or transfers the higher-ups, but the assistants who work in the trenches and move the cases through the system are usually safe because someone is always needed to do the work. The question for me becomes do I want to risk getting to the next level and certainly tying my career prospects to the current DA or am I content to fly under the radar and toil in obscurity until retirement.

Ambition has always been a blessing and a curse for me.

So, young lawyers who send me so many emails, make sure you enter public service with your eyes open. It is a great and noble career, but politics always gets in the way as does the pressure to participate, which might not always be subtle.


  1. Your concerns, in this post and others, are why I love prosecuting in a jurisdiction with appointed district attorneys, a statewide prosecuting agency (no county DAs as we do not have counties), a statewide public defender agency, a statewide conflict public defender agency, a statewide unified court system (no county or city courts), an appointed attorney general (only the governor and lieutenant governor are elected) and all police interviews are audio recorded or the interview is not admissible (exceptions of course do apply). This wonderful place also gives its citizens money each October ($900 this year), has no sales or income tax and (for my office at least) a wonderful view overlooking both the ocean and the tallest mountain in North America.

    1. I wonder where this prosecutor heaven is located . . .

    2. Alaska, I'd guess. Total population of the state ~600K, if I recall correctly.

  2. Also should've added that as a statewide prosecuting agency we prosecutors in the state's biggest office get to travel all around the state (2.5 times the size of Texas) prosecuting crimes and assisting the (smaller) regional district attorney offices.

    This job is light-years ahead of what I thought possible when I worked in Idaho and Washington state as a prosecutor. We also get paid better than almost any other prosecuting agency in the country.

    Oh. This heaven is called Alaska.

  3. I can understand why you started and stopped so many times. Having worked in (admittedly non-political) offices where turnover higher up led to uncertainly down below, I can relate to the feeling you get. It's hard to get work done when everyone's feeding into or from the rumor mill. Thanks for sharing!