The alleged anti-establishment narrative of this election does not seem to be threatening the actual incumbency of most politicians (with the exception of Kansas' Tim Huelskamp, who notably infuriated parts of the conservative establishment). Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio on the right and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the left all handily won their primaries last night. They could still lose in the general election, but this means that despite the discontent, party voters aren't dumping them.
But there is a surprising anti-incumbency trend playing out this election, and it claimed another victim last night. Angela Corey, the Florida prosecutor probably best noted for her failed attempt in trying to convict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, lost her primary race badly to Melissa Nelson (64 percent to 26 percent—a blowout).
But Corey was well-known to criminal justice activists outside of the Zimmerman case, and she had a reputation for pushing for extremely harsh sentences. Reason readers may recall Corey throwing the book at Marissa Alexander, who faced a possible 20-year sentence for firing a gun into the ceiling in order to scare away an abusive husband who had a protective order to stay away. Ultimately Alexander accepted a plea deal that sentenced her to three years in prison, most of which she had already served.
She also had a reputation for being remarkably thin-skinned for somebody whose job it was to convict criminals and for feuds with anybody who had an unkind word for her. Ken "Popehat" White noted her unprofessional, threatening behavior back in 2012 and the Florida Times-Union, when reporting Corey's loss last night, mentioned that the elected official refused to talk to the newspaper at all for a year (probably over criticism like this).
Corey isn't the first prosecutor to lose her primary challenge this year. She wasn't even the only prosecutor to lose a primary challenge last night. Directly south of Corey's districts, State Attorney Jeff Ashton, known for his failed prosecution of Casey Anthony, was also dumped in favor of Aramis Ayala, whose campaign was partially funded by a political action committee that gets money from George Soros.
Earlier in the year, as Ed Krayewski noted, prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland lost re-election bids. In both of those cases, dissatisfaction with the prosecutors' failures in addressing accusations of police misconduct clearly played a role. Embedded within that frustration is the larger complaint that some people, particularly those in position of authority, are given a pass by peers while poor minorities are crushed by a harsh system that assumes the worst of them.
This is hardly a new complaint about America's system of justice and sentencing laws, but it's a little surprising to actually see it play out in primary elections, particularly given how rare it is for incumbents to be punished. Some law professors weighed in on the trend:
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University: "Corey's defeat tonight continues a small—but important—trend of powerful, incumbent prosecutors losing primary elections for being too aggressive. So far, however, no prosecutor has lost just for being aggressive: those who have been ousted all have also had scandals that contributed, perhaps importantly, to their defeats. Nonetheless, tonight is further evidence that being the toughest prosecutor on the block no longer ensures victory, even in a Republican primary."
Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami: "Corey's loss is an encouraging sign that the public will no longer tolerate overzealous and unprincipled criminal prosecutions, including women and children."
Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida: "For too long, Duval County has been an outlier in its excessive use of the death penalty, its harsh punishment of juveniles, and its reliance on outdated sentencing practices. Today, voters have embraced new leadership and turned the corner towards a State Attorney's Office that the community can trust."
Stephen Harper, a clinical professor at the Death Penalty Clinic and a law professor at Florida International University: "It is refreshing to see a prosecutor who is so overly aggressive defeated in a conservative southern jurisdiction. This goes to show, among other things, that the death penalty is on its way out."
On the other hand, part of celebration of Corey's loss seems tied to the fact that she failed to convict Zimmerman. That's a bit concerning because, despite how awful a person Zimmerman clearly is, there really wasn't enough evidence to suggest that he should have been convicted, as Jacob Sullum previously detailed. The loathsome "He was no angel" narrative when police trot out a person's entire troubled history in order to try to justify a shooting should apply to Zimmerman as much as it does to everybody else. That a person has positions in favor of gun control or is aware of the justice system's terrible treatment of black males isn't an argument for putting Zimmerman in prison. It's just another type of emotional reaction that helps feed a punitive justice system.