This age-old question of political philosophy is raised once again by Radley Balko’s latest column in the Washington Post. As Balko reports, South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty has admonished state prosecutors not to engage in witness tampering, selective or retaliatory prosecution, or suppression of evidence, and the prosecutors in South Carolina are outraged. Believe it or not, they think Justice Beatty’s remarks make him unfit to judge criminal cases in South Carolina. I should have thought that outspoken opposition to witness tampering, retaliatory prosecution, and suppression of evidence would be right up there among the very most important qualities we want in judges who hear criminal cases.
Balko writes that this story and the others he reports in the same column all fit into a single theme of prosecutors being opposed to accountability in any form. He’s right as usual, but it seems to me there is another lesson here as well: Instead of giving speeches that put prosecutors on notice that their misconduct will no longer be tolerated, judges should just start throwing the book at the bad actors. If they object to the warning, don’t warn them.
If you haven’t been following Balko’s extensive reporting on police and prosecutorial misconduct in the last few years, you have some powerful (if disturbing) reading to catch up on. I first encountered Balko’s work during his distinguished career at Reason Magazine, where he wrote until he joined the Washington Post last year. He wrote an influential 2006 white paper for the Cato Institute on “The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America,” and his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop (available from Amazon in paperback or on Kindle) explores the same themes with the benefit of several more years of careful attention to a growing problem. If you think a bookful of this stuff would depress you too much, here’s 14 minutes of Balko on John Stossel’s show, with some interesting commentary (part rebuttal with lots of common ground) from an Ohio sheriff: