A progressive icon hears from his critics

Craig Watkins has been an inspiration to criminal justice reformers since he became Dallas County District Attorney in 2006.  There aren’t many black prosecutors in Texas so Watkins’ narrow election victory provided some much-needed balance.  But it went deeper than that.  Watkins had the backing of South Dallas ministers, people who have felt the impact of mass incarceration in their congregations.

“We’re going to reduce this crime rate,” Watkins promised in his 2006 acceptance speech. “We’re going to address the underlying reasons why people are committing crime.”

After generations of convict-at-any-cost prosecution, prevention and redemption were to be the new watchwords.

For the most part, Mr. Watkins has delivered.  He has cooperated with innocence programs and has created his own integrity unit to cull through old convictions for signs of wrongful conviction.  The Dallas County DA isn’t solely responsible for the dramatic stream of DNA exonerations flowing from Dallas County, but he has certainly facilitated the process.

No one was surprised when Watkins cleaned house shortly after his election by firing several of the prosecutors he inherited from the Bill Hill administration.  The new man was working with a new vision and needed assistant DAs who were willing to get with the program. 

But it wasn’t long before Watkins’ admirers were lamenting his thin skin.  A prolonged struggle with the County Commissioners punctuated by angry rants from the DA did little to enhance his stature as a statesman. 

And now, with a new round of post-election dismissals, Watkins is hearing from his critics.  The Dallas Morning News published a scathing editorial on Monday accusing the DA of partisan paranoia.  Most, perhaps all, of the men and women dismissed in this latest round were Republicans with strong reputations for fairness and proficiency within the legal community. 

Former Baylor Law School professor Mark Osler now teaches at the St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.  Some of the victims of Craig Watkins’ axe were his former students.  Osler is a progressive Democrat, but when you teach at Baylor you learn to work with people to your ideological right.  Most students and faculty members at Baylor come from conservative backgrounds. Professor Osler challenged them to expand their intellectual horizons, but the goal was never to win them over to his side of the political spectrum.  Indoctrination and intellectual coercion have no place in the classroom.

Osler thinks Watkins is making a big mistake.  I’ll let him tell you why.

Mark Osler: A Watkins supporter laments leadership shortcomings

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

With great power comes a striking transformation. One’s life becomes closely watched, and what a powerful person does is imbued with great meaning. True leaders understand this. Craig Watkins apparently does not. His firing of several assistant district attorneys with Republican ties after his re-election is a sad show of weakness at a place and time where strength is needed.

Few people in our society wield the kind of unchecked power that prosecutors do. They can bring charges against whomever they wish; in Texas, a prosecutor doesn’t even have to put witnesses in front of a grand jury to get an indictment, and once a person is indicted their life is forever changed. We give such power to prosecutors along with a large dose of trust – trusting that they will be selfless in utilizing that power, free of vindictiveness and pettiness.

What is most troubling about Craig Watkins’ actions in firing these career prosecutors is that it creates the appearance of exactly the type of petty vindictiveness which is most fatal to justice. If he plays such favorites among his staff, what does that do to the trust and discretion he has been given to destroy lives and freedoms?

I don’t claim to know the specifics behind each of the firings, though two of those affected were former students of mine at Baylor Law School whom I know to be outstanding lawyers. However, Watkins’ failing transcends any specific case. The symbolic power of this move is what matters, as Watkins should understand.

For example, a good prosecutor uses a case to deter others from committing a crime through simple messages and images. When Rudolph Giuliani was the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, he was a master of problem-solving through symbolic images. When insider trading defendants were arrested, they were shown on the evening news being handcuffed at work, then doing the perp-walk past stunned co-workers. Giuliani understood that these powerful images would discourage others from committing the same crime.

Giuliani used the power of symbolic images and actions to solve a societal problem. That is what prosecutors should do. Watkins is using the same power to exactly the wrong effect. Through either bad intent or a political tin ear, he is creating the perception of political partisanship unrelated to merit. It was wrong in the Bush administration’s Department of Justice, and it is wrong in the Dallas D.A.’s office.

Sadly, this marks a sharp change in the image that people such as I have of Craig Watkins. As a Democrat, I was thrilled at his election four years ago. As a death penalty opponent, I was encouraged by his actions in reviewing suspect cases. Importantly, I saw a good kind of strength in him – the kind of strength that allows one to admit errors and examine past mistakes.

Now, however, I see weakness. Strength in leadership very often consists of setting one’s own pride aside and doing what is best for the organization you lead. Many of those fired were very loyal to their oath and job. Their failing was a perceived disloyalty to their boss. In the end, it is the boss who values the latter over the former who is being disloyal to his higher duty of public service.

A better, braver way is described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals , which describes Abraham Lincoln’s toleration of political dissent within his own cabinet.

I don’t dispute that Craig Watkins has the power to fire employees at will. However, the core of prosecutorial discretion is not simply using the power you have – it is knowing when not to use that power. Such restraint takes humility and strength. Craig Watkins is showing neither.

Mark Osler is a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota. He previously taught law at Baylor University for 10 years. His e-mail address is Mark.Osler@Stthomas.edu.


3 thoughts on “A progressive icon hears from his critics

  1. D.A. Watkins was on the PBS Newshour last night talking about overturning false convictions, in the wake of the innocence of Cornelius Dupree Jr., recently absolved of wrongdoing after spending about 30 years in jail. He made a lot of sense on TV.

  2. Watkins is making a tremendous contribution, no doubt about that. He also has a lot of professional enemies. Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. This is a complicated matter, but I think it’s healthy to subject our own heroes to the same level of scrutiny with apply to the folks on the other side of the ideological divide.

  3. It was very hard to write that, because I do believe in so much of what Craig Watkins has done. Still, I hate to see him make some of the same mistakes as his predecessor.

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