The American Civil Liberties Union’s national campaign to raise awareness about the importance of elected district attorneys and entice more candidates to run for these jobs has excited considerable backlash from incumbents, including Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis.
Marquis made several valid points in his guest column Friday in The Daily Astorian, but underplayed the importance of county prosecutors in the justice system. Police, juries and judges all are key at certain procedural points in protecting society from lawbreakers. But prosecutors wield enormous power in determining who deserves a break, who gets the proverbial book thrown at them, and every shade of justice in between.
Smart district attorneys deliver appropriately nuanced interventions for first offenders, increasingly severe and less merciful penalties for those who repeat their mistakes, and full out “throw away the key” prosecutions for those who are viewed as irredeemable. Most of these important decisions are essentially invisible to the public. But they ripple up and down the chain of justice, strongly influencing who police choose to arrest, and who judges and juries see inside courtrooms.
A majority of elected district attorneys and their staffs perform acceptably well in an overloaded system that highly reflects problems faced in their communities. In our area, although Clatsop and Pacific counties have each experienced bad prosecutors in recent decades, both now are fortunate to have dedicated and competent ones in Marquis here and Mark McClain in South Bend, Washington. Citizens have frustrations about property crime driven by drug addictions, sentences influenced by jail overcrowding and other criminal-justice issues. But there is little or no sense in our area that prosecutors are lazy, overwhelmed, incompetent, biased or corrupt.
The same cannot be said of every county in the nation. The ACLU is not wrong in asserting there are district attorneys who, at a minimum, should face vigorous competition in elections. Democracy benefits when voters have genuine choices on ballots. This applies to all elective offices. Most county officers of all types — not just prosecutors — tend not to face serious opponents. Sometimes, this is a function of pay. An attorney in private practice can make much more than a district attorney or a judge, and face far less agonizing day-to-day decisions.
Usually, voters tend to stick with established incumbents unless there is some compelling reason not to. But we would be better served if every election was a well-informed referendum on how well our various levels of government are functioning. Contested races are key to this goal.
Beyond issues of competency and honesty, the ACLU’s campaign is partly premised on the degree to which some district attorneys intervene in the political system in support of or opposition to laws and citizen initiatives. Tough-on-crime ballot measures in Oregon and elsewhere can appear appealing to voters, yet have a disproportionate impact on people disadvantaged because of their ethnicity or other circumstances.
Marquis and other politically engaged prosecutors are passionate advocates on behalf of causes like victims’ rights — positions shared by most constituents, judging by election results. However, it’s unsurprising that the ACLU, which often defends unpopular causes grounded in an expansive view of the Bill of Rights, would push back against prosecutors who wade into political and social matters. Annoying and yet admirable, the ACLU is a valuable watchdog on behalf of constitutional liberties for all.