Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Kansas v. Cope, 50 P.3d 513 (Kan. Ct. App. 2002).
This case answers a couple of questions:
- Who makes the decision to charge a suspect with a crime?
- When must a prosecutor recuse himself from a case?
The district attorney “has sole discretion to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek.”
The issue in this case was whether the trial court erred in not disqualifying the Johnson County District Attorney’s office, and if that subsequently violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The decision by the trial court on a motion to disqualify an attorney is subject to review for abuse of discretion. Id. at 515. The prosecutor “has sole discretion to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek. Id. It is important … that these discretionary functions of the prosecutor be exercised with the highest degree of integrity and impartiality.” Id. Further, it has been ruled that there is a legitimate expectation that the prosecutor’s zeal will be “objective and impartial” in each case. Id.
A conflict of interest by the prosecutor only warrants recusal if the conflict “is so grave as to render it unlikely that the defendant will receive fair treatment during all portions of the criminal proceedings.” Id. at 516. The Court stated that when deciding whether the prosecutor should be recused, it should be determined if the prosecutor has a significant personal interest in the litigation that would impair their obligation to act impartially toward the State and the accused. Id. The respondent argued that due to the fact that his threat targeted the entirety of the Johnson County courthouse, which included the office of the district attorney, it created a conflict of interest in which the attorneys could not objectively participate in the case. Id. The Court rejected this argument noting that if they followed that line of logic, “everyone from the bailiff to the court reporter” suffered potential bias. Id. Further, since the courthouse was a public building, any resident of Johnson County was a potential target and would also be biased. Id. The Court also reasoned that, even though the district attorney is given broad prosecutorial discretion, the fact that a judge from a different judicial district, who is ultimately in charge of making trial decisions, presided over the trial prevented any impact of bias from the district attorney’s office. Id. The Court concluded that since they could find no abuse of discretion from the refusal by the trial court to dismiss the Johnson County District Attorney’s office from prosecuting this case, there was no violation of the respondent’s due process rights. Id.