Legal Ethics

Federal Prosecutors Rarely Lose Their Jobs, Despite Misconduct Findings

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Justice Department investigations of prosecutor misconduct rarely result in serious sanctions for wrongdoing, according to a newspaper investigation.

“Prosecutors have little reason to fear losing their jobs, even if they violate laws or constitutional safeguards designed to ensure the justice system is fair,” USA Today reports.

Most violations result in reprimands, suspensions or agreements that allow lawyers to leave their jobs “with their reputations intact and their records unblemished,” the newspaper says.

The U.S. Justice Department refused USA Today’s request for a list of disciplinary actions taken against prosecutors, so the newspaper sifted through a decade of annual reports that summarize some of the cases investigated. The documents revealed just one termination. A Department of Justice lawyer was fired because she had been unlicensed for more than five years after she was suspended for failing to comply with legal education requirements, according to the 2009 report (PDF).

The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had recommended the firing of four other lawyers, but they either resigned or retired.

According to the reports, OPR has investigated 756 complaints from 2000 to 2009 and found misconduct in 196 cases. Justice officials say they can’t release investigation details because of privacy laws.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told USA Today in a statement that the department is providing training to ensure prosecutors meet their ethical obligations. “An internal review conducted by the Department last year found prosecutorial misconduct in a small fraction of the 90,000 cases brought annually, and when mistakes occur, we correct them as quickly and transparently as possible within the bounds of the law, which restricts what information we can release about personnel matters,” she said.

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