Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Thomas Goldstein, an ex-marine who was convicted of murdering his neighbor.
Goldstein served 24 years before his conviction was thrown out when the main witness against him was shown to have lied. That witness was a lifelong criminal who was given a deal on his own charges in exchange for testimony that Goldstein confessed to him in a jail cell. Goldstein alleges that the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case routinely used the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" prosecutors knew or should have known weren't reliable.
Goldstein's case is unusual because he's not suing the prosecutor who convicted him, but John Van de Camp, the district attorney who supervised that prosecutor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed Goldstein's case to go forward, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear it.
Goldstein's lawsuit stems from federal law 42 U.S.C. 1983, which states that "…[e]very person" who acts under color of state law to deprive another of a constitutional rights shall be answerable to that person in a suit for damages," and provides a means for those wronged by government officials to file suit in federal court.
But there are exceptions to Section 1983 suits. In the 1976 case Imbler v. Pachtman, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out a wide exception to the law to exempt prosecutors. The Court said common law tradition grants prosecutors have what's known as "absolute immunity" from civil rights suits, meaning that they can't be sued, provided they're acting in their capacity as prosecutors. Few people enjoy such protections in their own line of work (judges have absolute immunity as well).
But this complete shield from accountability is especially problematic when we're talking about prosecutors. It's a job that's already plagued by incentive problems. We tend to measure a prosecutor's performance based on how many people he's able to throw in jail, not necessarily by how well he metes out justice.
Rarely, for example, does a prosecutor get public recognition for the cases he doesn't take. So we have people in a position where they have the enormous power to take away someone's freedom, incentives nudging them to err on the side of prosecuting aggressively, and absolute immunity from lawsuits should they overstep their bounds.
It's a recipe for abuse.
Generally speaking, it is smart public policy to shield prosecutors from lawsuits when it comes to determining in which cases they'll pursue charges. If we hamstring prosecutors into factoring potential lawsuits into determining whom to charge, we run the risk of bringing politics or the wealth and status of the accused into what should be a question of law, context, and propriety (any more than these things are already factor into such decisions, anyway).
But you could make a good case that absolute immunity takes this idea too far. Even police officers are given what's called "qualified immunity" from civil rights suits, which in 1983 the Supreme Court determined meant, "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
That sets a hurdle for lawsuits against the police, but not a wall (some would argue that this hurdle is also too high). It might be time to consider applying that standard to prosecutors, too.
But the Goldstein case doesn't even seek to overturn the 1976 decision in Imbler. That would take an act of Congress—and again, perhaps that's something Congress should consider.
Instead, the suit targets Mr. Van de Kamp as the manager of the district attorney's office. It says that he's guilty of negligently overseeing his office, and allowing his subordinates to use unreliable, uncorroborated testimony from prison inmates.
Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, I'd be pleasantly surprised if they allowed Goldstein's lawsuit to go forward. But they should.
More broadly, we need to reconsider the idea of absolute immunity for prosecutors.