On Character and Suspicion (Harris County ADAs Under Suspicion)

In 63 BCE, during his rise to power, Julius Caesar was appointed to the powerful and sacred office of “Pontifex Maximus,” the chief priest of the Roman state religion. As part of his new role, according to custom, his wife, Pompeia, was required to hostess a religious festival of the “Good Goddess.” The Good Goddess festival was pretty unique, even by strange pagan standards. It was only for women, and was one of the few times women were allowed to drink strong wine, perform animal sacrifices, and stay out late at night. All in all, it was a great, albeit a bit bloody, time.

Problematically if not predictably, a cocky young man named Publius allegedly disguised himself as a woman and snuck into the festivities in order to seduce Pompeia. Rumor spread that Pompeia was having an affair with Publius, and the city was abuzz with the worst kind of gossip. Publius was charged with Sacrilege, a criminal offense back in those pre-separation-of-church-and-state days, and to the credit of the ancient Roman legal system, was entirely acquitted- probably rightfully.

It became apparent that Publius probably didn’t sneak into the festivities at all, and it was certain that he had never had any kind of contact with Pompeia, let alone any conduct that might…besmirch her virtue, so to speak.

Still, Caesar divorced Pompeia immediately, in spite of knowing that she was innocent. When asked why he would divorce his wife for doing nothing wrong, Caesar said, “Caesar’s wife must be beyond suspicion.” (We forgive darling Julius for referring to himself in the third person. Sometimes even your dearest Allison is guilty of such.)

At first, it seems pretty wildly unfair for ol’ Julius to divorce the luckless Pompeia, who was summarily kicked into the ash-heap (or perhaps ash-hole?) of history with this one disappointing little story. But if you think about it, really, shouldn’t she have been beyond suspicion? Don’t we all want to be the kind of people who, when someone whispers a filthy little rumor about us, the listener says, “Wait, actually I know her, and there’s no way she would do that. Don’t come around here spreading lies about the most honest person I know. Good day, sir.”

I think that as attorneys, and especially as attorneys who practice criminal law, we have to be the kind of people who are beyond suspicion. We are ethically bound to be honest to the tribunals before which we appear, and to other officers of the court, including opposing counsel. While we are not obligated to tip our hands to the adversary, we should endeavor to play fair.

While an accused enjoys “innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” we, as attorneys, from an ethical and moral standpoint at least, do not.

The recent shake-up at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is an example of the failure of attorneys to be beyond suspicion. The allegations that at least three prosecutors who were recently “asked not to return” to the office under the incoming Ogg administration have contacted crime victims and their families and spread false information and panic are truly horrifying. I hope, for the sake of the victims, for the honor of this profession, and for the future careers of those attorneys, that those allegations are not true. I will not speculate on the professionalism of the three ADA’s named, other than to say that one of them, Nick Socias, was the ADA who recently made news for jailing a rape victim to ensure she testified against an attacker, and was defended by Devon Anderson in an odd and ill-advised YouTube video.

I hope (though I’m afraid that this is hope trumping experience in this case) that these prosecutors have worked hard throughout their careers to develop a shining and honorable reputation. That they will be beyond suspicion, that the allegations are not only false, but that the people who know these individual prosecutors will refuse to believe it anyway.

Unfortunately, the solitary fact that these prosecutors worked under outgoing DA Devon Anderson may make any protestations harder to believe. Anderson has proved herself, time and again, to be untrustworthy and deceptive. Even now, at the twilight of her tenure, rumors are swirling about the odd circumstances of her recent, personally-signed dismissal of a misdemeanor DWI for a prominent Houston attorney who also happens to be a former campaign donor to Anderson. Maybe Anderson’s dismissal was reasoned and just. I hope that it was. But whatever the facts of the situation may be, it’s fair to say that the public doesn’t think her character is above the suspicion that she would engage in such blatant cronyism and a trade-off of favors. Attorneys who worked under Anderson and had her favor, especially those who were promoted by her and were protected by her, have a bit of a fetid tang that is going to be hard to wash off.

Kim Ogg’s recently publicized decision to refuse to renew the contracts of 37 prosecutors, many of them in senior and supervisory roles, has come under a considerable amount of fire in the past days. The continued circus of the Anderson administration and the constant, dripping faucet of indications of a culture of unethical (at best) behavior by attorneys who not only should know better but are obligated to do better shows that Ogg’s massive layoff was not only acceptable but necessary. I have great hope that Ogg will find people to fill the empty positions who have earned reputations that are not only above suspicion but also beyond reproach.

As for Devon Anderson, kick her in the ash-hole.