First Prosecutors, Now Judges – Is Reform Needed?

Last week, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case testing prosecutors’ immunity from lawsuits where misconduct, or outright fraud, is concerned. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported on a lawsuit that seeks to test the limits of judicial immunity. While the two cases deal with very different circumstances, the potential outcomes raise many of the same concerns and highlight the need for reform.

In the case involving prosecutorial immunity, an Iowa prosecutor is accused of framing two men for murder, resulting in their 25-year imprisonment. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, two judges are accused of sending numerous juvenile offenders to detention centers in exchange for kickbacks from the centers’ operators. Currently, the prosecutor and judges are shielded from civil lawsuit by long-standing precedent that argues immunity is necessary to prevent disgruntled individuals from overwhelming the legal system. Supporters contend that any time a decision is not made in his or her favor, an individual could claim some wrongdoing on the part of a judge or prosecutor, ultimately leading to lawsuits against anyone involved in the decision. While I understand the logic behind judicial and prosecutorial immunity, the two cases in question highlight the disadvantages of blanket protections.

Undoubtedly, repealing immunity for judges and prosecutors would have a detrimental impact on our legal system, but failing to act against those individuals who abuse or misuse their positions damages the credibility of the system as a whole. When one considers that many judges, including those at the federal and Supreme Court levels, are appointed for life, the potential damage done by a dishonest jurist could have wide-ranging and long-lasting repercussions. Rather than revoke judicial and prosecutorial protections from civil suits, would it not make more sense to strengthen the protections afforded all parties in our legal system?

As the Supreme Court debates whether or not the Constitution protects individuals from being framed for a crime, lawmakers should act to answer the question with a definitive no. At the same time, lawmakers should establish a system that can efficiently vet claims of misconduct and respond accordingly, in a manner similar to the grand juries that decide whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to sustain criminal charges. Fear of overwhelming the legal system is not reason enough to split hairs over when immunity applies nor is it justification for failing to act on issues of such great importance and broad impact. By establishing a system of independent review, the ability of corrupt individuals to coerce and collude with nefarious intent is curbed significantly, and the individual protections guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights are maintained and reinforced.

Postscript: While I have been unable to locate statistics detailing the percentage of individuals summoned who ultimately serve on a jury, there is likely capacity to support a grand-jury-style system to investigate wrongdoing by judges and prosecutors. Massachusetts, for example, summoned 915,428 individuals in 2008, enough to support 76,285 twelve-member juries.