Full Disclosure: Belief and the bench

Work as a federal prosecutor can require long hours at the office, stressful court situations that drain one’s energy and powers of thinking, and complicated legal problems that require all of one’s mind and judgment. Sometimes the day feels unequally divided: 80 percent for work and 20 percent for the “rest of life.” In that rest of life are the things that really matter: marriage, raising children, family, friendships and activities like home and lawn maintenance, recreation, social occasions and exercise. Somewhere in there are also church, faith and spiritual life.

I know it is not supposed to be that way, that spirituality should not be a separate item on the rest-of-life menu, something to take up like a hobby after work. If active and strong, faith is like character; we take it with us into any situation. It influences how we think and act, whether consciously or not. But as much as I recognize and occasionally pursue the goal of integrating spiritual life into daily work, most of the time I am too busy to think about God or to reflect or pray as the day flies by.


Does this mean that my Catholic faith does not affect my work? I’ve whispered too many “Hail Mary’s” on my way to receive a jury verdict, grappled with ethical issues that required asking for divine guidance, and have thanked God too many times for helping me stay cool when attacked by opposing counsel not to know that faith affects my outlook on life, my values, my approach and attitudes toward the people and problems I encounter as a prosecutor.

Apart from the murmured prayers (or muttered curses) that may erupt during the day, faith’s deeper influence on my work comes from the way fundamental beliefs translate into values and eventually into patterns of conduct. A believing Catholic embraces a tradition with a deep consciousness of God’s presence in the world, particularly in each human person. Seeing God in people is a belief that, for me, translates into the value of humility, a value not often associated with lawyers or prosecutors. In practice, humility means treating each person with equal dignity, deserving of respect.

For a prosecutor, the accused—regardless of how terrible the crime—deserves respect as a person just as much as do the judge, the other lawyers, the jury or the witnesses, agents or police officers. The defendant in the dock is at that moment the least of our brothers or sisters. Ensuring fair treatment and the right to due process is as much the prosecutor’s responsibility as is proving guilt. Respect for human dignity also influences how one treats opposing counsel, witnesses, victims and professional colleagues. Respect and humility involve more than being polite and professional. These fundamental values have given life to many of the ethical standards intended to ensure fairness in criminal trials. Animated by such values, a prosecutor will want to vigorously ensure that any and all evidence (especially evidence that hurts the government’s case) is turned over to the defense as required under criminal discovery rules. Full disclosure of the facts, “warts and all,” follows from an approach that values each person’s dignity.

Judges often say that sentencing is their most difficult task. Sitting in judgment over a fellow human being is an awesome responsibility. So is the responsibility prosecutors have in representing the people’s interests at the time of sentencing. Those interests usually call for punishment, deterrence and protection of the public. When the question is no longer the fairness of the trial but the nature of the crime and the appropriate punishment—that is when it is hardest to see the convicted person as worthy of the same dignity society accords to the judge, the lawyers or others in the courtroom.

Yet as a Catholic I remember that Jesus (though innocent) once stood where that defendant stands, about to be sentenced by Pilate, his prosecutor and judge. Suddenly the values of humility and the equal dignity of the defendant seem to fit at the time of sentencing as well.

The high pressure, deadline-driven job of a federal prosecutor can make one feel that there is no time for the peaceful, meditative practices of the spiritual life. And the competitive nature of the adversarial judicial process can sometimes enshrine “winning” as the highest goal. Faith illuminates different values, however, like acting with humility and seeing God in others.

Seeing God in people is a belief that for me translates into the value of humility.

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David Smith
8 years ago
Would you say that Jesus received a fair trial?


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