Asked about the lawsuit, a spokesman for the city’s law department, Nick Paolucci, said that while prosecutors who committed misconduct should be held accountable, the professors’ attempted use of the grievance process was contrary to the law.
“Their frustration with their lack of progress to increase accountability through advocacy and the legislative process does not entitle them to misuse the attorney grievance process or bring a frivolous lawsuit to bring attention to their goals,” he said.
The Queens district attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
The 21 grievances were based on judicial findings of misconduct. In many cases, the convictions that the prosecutors’ misbehavior had helped to win had been reversed or overturned. But the prosecutors, who worked to send innocent people to prison or otherwise violated professional standards, had not been held accountable. Indeed, a number have continued to work as prosecutors in Queens, or elsewhere in New York.
The city has argued that the professors’ actions violated a New York law that requires that complaints related to lawyers’ conduct be kept private unless judicial authorities decide otherwise. The professors are asking that a judge declare that law to be unconstitutional, a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The grievance process effectively allows lawyers to police themselves. Born in a time when prosecutorial misconduct was a little-discussed feature of the criminal justice system, the process is highly obscure, handled by court-appointed committees that conduct their work in private.
“Prosecutors are notorious for escaping being investigated when there are concerns that they violated legal ethics,” said Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former federal prosecutor. He added that when prosecutors were found to have committed wrongdoing, they were notorious for escaping consequences, too.
Various commissions and task forces have recommended that the process be overhauled to provide transparency, but change has been slow to arrive. In 2018, New York State passed a law establishing a commission on prosecutorial conduct, giving the new body the power to investigate prosecutors’ behavior. The state’s official association of district attorneys objected, and a judge ruled the commission to be unconstitutional.