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The Ethics of our Profession as Prosecutors

Special to the Globe by San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow

By Dan Dow, June 1, 2024 2:45 am

The jury verdicts in New York v. Donald J. Trump, regardless of anyone’s political preferences, present a very significant historic event for our nation.  The trial and its verdicts are likely the most talked about event in recent history and that will continue through the November election. The nation is very divided politically and specifically about the appropriateness of this criminal trial. Perhaps as many as half the population of our country now do not trust the criminal and victim justice system. Whatever the number is, it will absolutely have an effect on our own San Luis Obispo County juries.

The reputation of our profession as prosecutors is impacted negatively and positively by the decisions made by prosecutors in every jurisdiction across the country. Therefore, we must jealously guard our individual and collective reputation by striving every day to exercise our authority in an impartial manner that earns the trust of every person in our jurisdiction regardless of their stature in society, their career, their popularity, their religious belief, their political preferences, or their personal associations. Our prosecutorial duty to seek truth is a mandate – not an optional ‘nice to have’ thought.

Americans everywhere should be told about the high ethical standard that applies to our profession and then decide whether or not their District Attorneys are living up to that standard.  If not, they should vote to elect a new prosecutor who publicly commits to this standard described by then US Attorney General Robert H. Jackson in his 1940 speech.

I became a prosecutor because of the requirement to exercise our authority with honesty, integrity, and fairness to all concerned. I am disappointed to see political prosecutions by some district attorneys – and their simultaneous dereliction of their duty to enforce the law and protect their communities from violent criminals. The immense power entrusted to the office of prosecutor requires individuals who are servants of the law and who are steadfastly committed to fulfilling our duty with honesty, integrity, and fairness.”

I am requesting that every attorney read the attached speech given by former US Attorney General Robert H. Jackson in 1940. He was addressing all of the US Attorneys at that time about the ethics of our job as prosecutors. The duty he describes applies equally to us as local prosecutors as it does to the Federal prosecutors he was addressing at the time.


*Speech delivered at the Second Annual Conference of United States Attorneys, in Washington D. C. on April 1, 1940.


Robert H. Jackson

Attorney General of the United States

April 1, 1940

It would probably be within the range of that exaggeration permitted in Washington to say that assembled in this room is one of the most powerful peace-time forces known to our country. The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous. He can have citizens investigated and, if he is that kind of person, he can have this done to the tune of public statements and veiled or unveiled intimations. Or the prosecutor may choose a more subtle course and simply have a citizen’s friends interviewed. The prosecutor can order arrests, present cases to the grand jury in secret session, and on the basis of his one-sided presentation of the facts, can cause the citizen to be indicted and held for trial. He may dismiss the case before trial, in which case the defense never has a chance to be heard. Or, he may go on with a public trial. If he obtains a conviction, the prosecutor can still make recommendations as to sentence, as to whether the prisoner should get probation or a suspended sentence, and after he is put away, as to whether he is a fit subject for parole. While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.

These powers have been granted to our law-enforcement agencies became it seems necessary that such a power to prosecute be lodged somewhere. This authority has been granted by people who really wanted the right thing done–wanted crime eliminated–but also wanted the best in our American traditions preserved.

Because of this immense power to strike at citizens, not with mere individual strength, but with all the force of government itself, the post of Federal District Attorney from the very beginning has been safeguarded by presidential appointment, requiring confirmation of the Senate of the United States. You are thus required to win an expression of confidence in your character by both the legislative and the executive branches of the government before assuming the responsibilities of a federal prosecutor.

Your responsibility in your several districts for law enforcement and for its methods cannot be wholly surrendered to Washington, and ought not to be assumed by a centralized Department of Justice. It is an unusual and rare instance in which the local District Attorney should be superseded in the handling of litigation, except where he requests help of Washington. It is also clear that with his knowledge of local sentiment and opinion, his contact with and intimate knowledge of the views of the court, and his acquaintance with the feelings of the group from which jurors are drawn, it is an unusual case in which his judgment should be overruled.

Experience, however, has demonstrated that some measure of centralized control is necessary. In the absence of it different district attorneys were striving for different interpretations or applications of an Act, or were pursuing different conceptions of policy. Also, to put it mildly, there were differences in the degree of diligence and zeal in different districts. To promote uniformity of policy and action, to establish some standards of performance, and to make available specialized help, some degree of centralized administration was found necessary.

Our problem, of course, is to balance these opposing considerations. I desire to avoid any lessening of the prestige and influence of the district attorneys in their districts. At the same time we must proceed in all districts with that uniformity of policy which is necessary to the prestige of federal law.

Nothing better can come out of this meeting of law enforcement officers than a rededication to the spirit of fair play and decency that should animate the federal prosecutor. Your positions are of such independence and importance that while you are being diligent, strict, and vigorous in law enforcement you can also afford to be just.

Although the government technically loses its case, it has really won if justice has been done. The lawyer in public office is justified in seeking to leave behind him a good record. But he must remember that his most alert and severe, but just, judges will be the members of his own profession, and that lawyers rest their good opinion of each other not merely on results accomplished but on the quality of the performance. Reputation has been called “the shadow cast by one’s daily life.” Any prosecutor who risks his day-to-day professional name for fair dealing to build up statistics of success has a perverted sense of practical values, as well as defects of character. Whether one seeks promotion to a judgeship, as many prosecutors rightly do, or whether he returns to private practice, he can have no better asset than to have his profession recognize that his attitude toward those who feel his power has been dispassionate, reasonable and just.

The federal prosecutor has now been prohibited from engaging in political activities. I am convinced that a good- faith acceptance of the spirit and letter of that doctrine will relieve many district attorneys from the embarrassment of what have heretofore been regarded as legitimate expectations of political service. There can also be no doubt that to be closely identified with the intrigue, the money raising, and the machinery of a particular party or faction may present a prosecuting officer with embarrassing alignments and associations. I think the Hatch Act should be utilized by federal prosecutors as a protection against demands on their time and their prestige to participate in the operation of the machinery of practical politics.

There is a most important reason why the prosecutor should have, as nearly as possible, a detached and impartial view of all groups in his community. Law enforcement is not automatic. It isn’t blind. One of the greatest difficulties of the position of prosecutor is that he must pick his cases, because no prosecutor can even investigate all of the cases in which he receives complaints. If the Department of Justice were to make even a pretense of reaching every probable violation of federal law, ten times its present staff would be inadequate. We know that no local police force can strictly enforce the traffic laws, or it would arrest half the driving population on any given morning. What every prosecutor is practically required to do is to select the cases for prosecution and to select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain.

If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his cases, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor, that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted.

With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him. It is in this realm in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies.

It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.

In times of fear or hysteria political, racial, religious, social, and economic groups, often from the best of motives, cry for the scalps of individuals or groups because they do not like their views. Particularly do we need to be dispassionate and courageous in those cases which deal with so called “subversive activities.” They are dangerous to civil liberty because the prosecutor has no definite standards to determine what constitutes a “subversive activity,” such as we have for murder or larceny. Activities which seem benevolent and helpful to wage earners, persons on relief, or those who are disadvantaged in the struggle for existence may be regarded as “subversive” by those whose property interests might be burdened or affected thereby. Those who are in office are apt to regard as “subversive” the activities of any of those who would bring about a change of administration. Some of our soundest constitutional doctrines were once punished as subversive. We must not forget that it was not so long ago that both the term “Republican” and the term “Democrat” were epithets with sinister meaning to denote persons of radical tendencies that were “subversive” of the order of things then dominant.

In the enforcement of laws which protect our national integrity and existence, we should prosecute any and every act of violation, but only overt acts, not the expression of opinion, or activities such as the holding of meetings, petitioning of Congress, or dissemination of news or opinions. Only by extreme care can we protect the spirit as well as the letter of our civil liberties, and to do so is a responsibility of the federal prosecutor.

Another delicate task is to distinguish between the federal and the local in law enforcement activities. We must bear in mind that we are concerned only with the prosecution of acts which the Congress has made federal offenses. Those acts we should prosecute regardless of local sentiment, regardless of whether it exposes lax local enforcement, regardless of whether it makes or breaks local politicians.

But outside of federal law each locality has the right under our system of government to fix its own standards of law enforcement and of morals. And the moral climate of the United States is as varied as its physical climate. For example, some states legalize and permit gambling, some states prohibit it legislatively and protect it administratively, and some try to prohibit it entirely. The same variation of attitudes towards other law-enforcement problems exists. The federal government could not enforce one kind of law in one place and another kind elsewhere. It could hardly adopt strict standards for loose states or loose standards for strict states without doing violence to local sentiment.

In spite of the temptation to divert our power to local conditions where they have become offensive to our sense of decency, the only long-term policy that will save federal justice from being discredited by entanglements with local politics is that it confine itself to strict and impartial enforcement of federal law, letting the chips fall in the community where they may. Just as there should be no permitting of local considerations to stop federal enforcement, so there should be no striving to enlarge our power over local affairs and no use of federal prosecutions to exert an indirect influence that would be unlawful if exerted directly.

The qualities of a good prosecutor are as elusive and as impossible to define as those which mark a gentleman. And those who need to be told would not understand it anyway. A sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.


Robert Houghwout Jackson (February 13, 1892 – October 9, 1954) was an American lawyer, jurist, and politician who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1941 until his death in 1954. He had previously served as United States Solicitor General and United States Attorney General, and is the only person to have held all three of those offices. Jackson was also notable for his work as Chief United States Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II.

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11 thoughts on “The Ethics of our Profession as Prosecutors

  1. Now that the United States has officially become a banana republic, prosecutors will be nothing more than tools for those in power. Instead of having a fair and unbiased judicial system we will now see endless jury, judge and prosecutor shopping. The masquerade trial in New York will become the norm and justice will fade into darkness.

  2. District Attorney Dan Dow claims that “Americans everywhere should be told about the high ethical standard that applies to our profession and then decide whether or not their District Attorneys are living up to that standard.” LOL! Probably most Americans would agree that the legal profession is full of lawyers who have ZERO ethics and that most District Attorneys are living up to that standard of ZERO ethics?

  3. Completely inappropriate for a sitting District Attorney to further undermine faith in the justice system by publishing such a piece at this time. It also implies a failure of the jury process itself.

    1. You are probably making a valid point, MC. But it’s not entirely clear. Perhaps you could elaborate on your comments for us. Hint: As a sitting DA he would have current and pending cases. A jury selected for those cases could be influenced by his published views/comments.

    2. In light of the system turning a misdemeanor between a prostitute and her John into 34 felony convictions (including the completely biased jury buying into it) how could a reasonable person have any faith in our broken system of justice?

    3. The point of the article is to demonstrate the ethical standard for prosecutors to follow. i.e. what must be done to ensure the people CAN trust (not undermine) in the criminal and victim justice system.

      1. @Lawyer. THAT’S obvious. Imo, we need more AI to replace the riff-raff in your profession. Right now, I prefer to use Rocket Lawyer. Otherwise, until we develop lawyer robots, if I get indicted and need to go to court – Better Call Saul.

  4. Hmm, I keep adding up where our government institutions have failed us.
    1. Health and Human Services which include but not limited to FDA, CDC, NIH and medical providers.

    2. Legal System: included Justice Department, County DA’s, corrupt judges,
    prosecutors and defense attorneys.

    3. National Security, including but not limited to Homeland Security, FBI, Border Patrol, CIA.

    4. Last but not least Education including but not limited to Dept. of Education, educators, Colleges, school boards.
    Corruption abounds as we are witness to for many years! It has hit a crescendo!

    Stated above:
    [Our prosecutorial duty to seek truth is a mandate – not an optional ‘nice to have’ thought.]
    If only truth was the mandate but bias seems to rule the day.
    Our constitution is being trampled on by the likes of our current presidential administration and tested by Judge Juan Merchan, DA Alvin Bragg, Leticia James DA, Fani Willis, DA George Gascon, DA Pamela Price, DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland!
    The list goes on!
    I am sorry but the taint is deep and strong!

    1. Yes, Cali Girl. And don’t forget America’s Chief Illegal Alien Enabler, Alejandro (what border?) Mayorkas.

      1. Yes, he is at the top of list.
        I can name at least a 100 people that have abdicated their responsibility and not lived up to the oath they took to PROTECT the citizens. It is clear that an oath is not important to them and I consider them to be the enemy from within.

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