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October 26, 2020

"Populist Prosecutorial Nullification"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Kerrel Murray and available via SSRN.  I flagged this paper in a long list when it first showed up earlier this year.  But with so much voting going on these days, I thought it now especially timely to note the paper again and reprint its abstract:

No one doubts that prosecutors may sometimes decline prosecution notwithstanding factual guilt.  Everyone expects prosecutors to prioritize enforcement based on resource limitation and, occasionally, to decline prosecution on a case-by-case basis when they deem justice requires it.  Recently, however, some state prosecutors have tested the boundaries of this power by asserting the right to refuse categorically to enforce certain state laws.  Examples include refusals to seek the death penalty and refusals to prosecute prostitution or recreational drug use.

There is thus a burgeoning need for a pertinent evaluative framework.  To answer that call, this Article offers the first extended analysis of the normative import of the locally elected status of the state prosecutors who make such pledges.  In so doing, it finds that local elections make all the difference.  There may well be something suspect about unilateral prosecutorial negation of democratically enacted law.  Yet there is something distinctly democratic, and thus justifiable, about an elected prosecutor who can claim popular sanction for the exact same act.

This Article first unspools a once-robust American tradition of localized, populist criminal-law non-enforcement, best seen in jury nullification.  It then applies democratic theory to construct a normative basis for reviving that tradition in the context of state prosecutors’ categorical non-enforcement.  These moves uncover a before-now unappreciated connection: at least where the prosecutor ties her categorical nullification to the polity’s electorally expressed will, she accomplishes wholesale what nullifying juries could once do retail.  Appreciating that relationship helps uncover a phenomenon best thought of as populist prosecutorial nullification.  Building upon that finding, I set out a novel framework for evaluation of state prosecutors’ categorical non-enforcement that is keyed to the concept of localized popular will.

October 26, 2020 at 12:49 PM | Permalink

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