Monday, June 20, 2011

The Prosecutors on the Court

An interesting article from The Washington Post examines the decisions of Supreme Court Justices Paul Alito and Sonia Sotomayor -- both former prosecutors, and both vocal on criminal justice cases.  Does their past experience make the justices favor prosecutors, or defendants?

Alito, a former career lawyer at the Justice Department and New Jersey’s U.S. attorney from 1987 to 1990, is wary of petitions from the convicted complaining of defects and worried about lawyers exploiting loopholes to try to free the guilty. “Public safety” is his bottom line and a phrase often repeated in his writing. ...
Sotomayor was an assistant district attorney in New York for five years, and as a former district federal judge she is the only one of the justices who has presided over a trial or sentenced someone to prison.
She has been critical of courts that cut short the appellate process for some of those challenging their convictions and has rapped her colleagues for not agreeing to accept petitions from death row inmates who allege that their attorneys did an inadequate job of representing them. ...
Alito has always been a federal prosecutor, [Stanford University law professor Jeffrey] Fisher notes, “where resources run deep” and cases are more carefully constructed. He comes with the view that police work is done right and that defendants are often trying to simply “game” the system.
Sotomayor’s experience in the New York DA’s office was probably more chaotic — and closer to the kind of prosecutions the court reviews. “She has a little more of an inkling that sometimes the system malfunctions,” he said.
Of course, this article raises other important questions:  Why aren't there more Supreme Court justices (and federal judges) with a background in criminal defense?  Why aren't there more justices who have actually sentenced people to prison?  Should actual sentencing experience be preferred (or required) to become one of our highest judges in the land?