While district attorneys are locally elected, rather than appointed, it makes sense to think of them as politicians. However, they also have the unique role of having to be an objective individual, who prosecutes on behalf of the state and his or her constituents – not beholden to any political party or lobbying group. The mere appearance of impropriety can have detrimental effects on the public’s trust in the justice system, and D.A.’s must be incredibly careful about how they campaign and run for their elected positions.
In New York, Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance, Jr. has recently announced this his office will ban any campaign contributions from criminal defense lawyers who have clients appearing against his office. This comes after widespread criticism against Mr. Vance when he did not pursue cases after he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from attorneys involved in high-profile investigations.
The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School drafted a report about the transparency in D.A. campaign fundraising in response to a request from Vance. He was criticized in October of 2017 for dropping investigations into Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and Harvey Weinstein. Vance’s office declined to prosecute Mr. Weinstein after allegations that he molested an Italian model in 2015. At the time, Mr. Weinstein had been represented by a former law partner of DA Vance, who had also contributed more than $24,000.00 to his campaign.
In its report, the Center recommended that Vance and all other state district attorneys reduce the appearance of bias and impropriety by capping contributions from lawyers with cases against their offices at $320 per election cycle. The Center also recommended limiting donations from law partners with cases appearing before the D.A’s to $3,850 per election cycle. Vance announced that he would “exceed those expectations” in a statement last week, revealing that his office would refuse to accept contributions in any amount whatsoever from lawyers appearing before their office. However, they would continue to accept contributions from their law partners in accordance with the recommended cap.
Vance also announced he would comply with the Center’s recommendation to create a ‘blinding’ procedure to prevent D.A’s from finding out who the donors to the campaign are and how much they are given, to avert any bias. This includes enforcing strict boundaries between the DA’s campaign office and the DA’s prosecutorial office.
Vance’s office is not the only DA’s office in the country to have come under fire for the appearance of impartiality. In 2016, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi decided not to press charges against Trump University after she received a $25,000.00 campaign contribution by Donald Trump. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accepted a $100,000.00 for someone under simultaneous investigation by his office, and a Michigan prosecutor was charged, but acquitted, for trading quid pro quo favors for campaign contributions. More locally, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has also been criticized for receiving certain donations. Gonzalez had raised over $2 million for his last election, among them some attorneys whose clients had cases pending with the Brooklyn office. For example, Joseph Mure, a Trump supporter, gave $2,000.00 to Gonzalez during the case – despite Gonzalez making his opposition to Trump a fundamental aspect of his campaign. Critics have urged him to follow Vance’s lead and reject any contributions from defense lawyers with cases before the DA. Regardless of their actions, more eyes are following campaign money and subsequent benefits with a keener eye than before.