A federal court ruling vindicated First Amendment rights and upheld the use of one of the only effective means of holding prosecutors accountable for misconduct — public exposure. A U.S. district court in Manhattan held on June 13 that a group of six law professors can freely call attention to misconduct and unaccountability in district attorneys’ offices by publishing online their disciplinary complaints against prosecutors. The professors' federal lawsuit, Reuters reports, alleged that New York state officials retaliated by threatening legal action and rescinding their status as "complainants" in prosecutor disciplinary actions because they published the complaints. The judge rejected motions to dismiss retaliation and other claims against various state officials. The professors seek to challenge the common assumption that prosecutors can generally be trusted to do their work ethically and that the convictions they obtain are almost always beyond question.
The campaign began after a state judge found that prosecutors in the Queens district attorney’s office had lied in order to convict three men who were later exonerated in a double murder. That case is part of a pattern for that office, according to lawyer Joel Rudin. The problem isn't unique to that office. The number of criminal exonerations in the U.S. has been growing for years, and official misconduct is consistently a top reason for those false convictions. Prosecutors are rarely disciplined for even plainly corrupt behavior, and civil lawsuits are almost never successful because of court-created legal immunities. To increase awareness, the professors filed complaints with the State of New York Grievance Committee against 21 Queens prosecutors and posted the complaints online. State officials immediately tried to block the move. Weeks later, the professors received a letter accusing them of breaking confidentiality laws and engaging in an inappropriate political campaign. About two weeks later, a letter from the grievance committee informed the professors they would be dismissed as complainants, meaning they wouldn’t have the usual access to information, like a decision to dismiss the complaint. The court held that it’s a First Amendment violation to use grievance confidentiality provisions to prevent complainants from sharing information about their own complaints.