LAW DAY REFLECTIONS: Patrick F. Condon

As Lancaster County Attorney and President of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association I believe Celebrating and Advancing the Rule of Law first means respecting the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government. It is often misstated that the prosecutor has the most power in the criminal justice system. But in my experience working with Nebraska prosecutors across the state over the last 30 years, it is more accurate to say that the prosecutor plays one of many important roles in the criminal justice system.  A prosecutor swears an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Nebraska, and to enforce all the laws enacted by the Legislature, under the watchful eye of other attorneys and trial and appellate judges, ensuring the rule of law is followed.

Prosecutors do not decide what laws to enforce. Prosecutors review the evidence, evaluate the facts, apply the law, and decide upon charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They exercise their best judgment based on the rule of law. There are also stringent ethical rules to follow. It is not the role of a prosecutor to say what should or should not be a crime. The Legislature makes that decision. Following the rule of law in the context of criminal prosecution is not defined by failing to enforce laws we disagree with and are sworn to uphold. Prosecutorial integrity is defined by fidelity to the rule of law.

The criminal justice system is similarly internally balanced by the power of the rule of law. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries provide oversight of one another. Each functions equally within the greater system. Each fulfills an important and independent role according to the rule of law. Evidence must be obtained under rules of law. Charges must be filed with the support of the law. Attorneys must zealously challenge the evidence under the rule of law. And courts are guided by the application of the rule of law.

While not perfect, the state and federal criminal justice system in this country is the best in the world. It is the rule of law within the system of checks and balances that guarantees one branch of government, one person, or one part of the criminal justice system is not more powerful than the system itself. That is something we can all celebrate.

Patrick F. Condon

President, Nebraska County Attorneys Association

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