On Tuesday, the New York State Assembly passed A. 5285-C, the State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct bill that passed the Senate in a surprise vote last week. Now it’s up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law. Groups like Human Rights Watch and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will be pushing him to do just that, which would create the country’s only investigative body exclusively investigating misconduct by prosecutors.
At the same time, some district attorneys around the state are likely to lobby to stop the bill. They will complain that a commission would have too much power, would dampen their ability to enforce the law fairly, and could interfere with ongoing prosecutions. They will see a violation of separation-of-powers and uncabined discretion vested in unelected commissioners including criminal defense lawyers bent on obstructing the work of prosecutors. Litigation will follow.
So what does the proposed law actually say? The full text is available here or by clicking the graphic above. In fact, the proposal is modest. The commission will be made up of volunteer judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers appointed by the governor and the legislature. It may investigate virtually any complaint against a prosecutor. It will have subpoena power. Its business will generally be conducted in public. But it won’t have any remedy with teeth: at the end of its investigation, all it can do is refer its findings to the governor or an appropriate court. It would be up to the governor or court to take action, removing a prosecutor for cause in appropriate circumstances. In other words, all the commission can do is serve as a conduit for information — information that an unscrupulous prosecutor’s colleagues have an ethical obligation to report in any event.
Good prosecutors won’t blanch at that. They know that they have enormous power over people’s lives, and they use it sparingly and with great care. They won’t worry about being investigated for misconduct because they won’t commit misconduct — they will turn over all exculpatory evidence, and carefully scrutinize police work before authorizing an arrest. But the proposed commission will give people who are unfairly hurt by prosecutors — the wrongly convicted or unfairly tried — a place to be heard. Governor Cuomo should sign the bill.