In Centre County, the public has lost confidence in our courts. Those who have not lost confidence are simply not looking closely enough.
Why should you care what I think?
I am an attorney. I practice criminal law. I appear regularly in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas, where I represent individuals being prosecuted by the Centre County District Attorney’s office. I have been a lawyer since 2007, and have actively practiced in Centre County since 2010, including three years as an Assistant Public Defender. In that time, I have represented hundreds of clients on charges ranging from the smallest infractions to serious felonies. This is all to say I know from what I speak.
Of the few attorneys I know who are actually supporting the current District Attorney, none have criminal defense practices. They therefore do not have the courtroom experience to have seen, first-hand, the antics, outbursts, bombast, unprofessionalism, and utter contempt for others, that our District Attorney has exhibited over the past seven years. Folks, it really is that bad.
I originally thought perhaps, as a trail-blazing woman taking over an office historically held by only men, Ms. Parks Miller was trying to establish her bona fides as a tough prosecutor. I expected her to settle into a semblance of stability, and to run a professional office. Considering these were among the criticisms she leveled against Michael Madeira in the 2009 election, this was not an unreasonable thought.
Time and experience have proven me wrong.
My concerns are not so much for my own clients, as I know I can secure some semblance of justice for them. I trust our judges to preside fairly, and when they are wrong I know I have the skill and ability to get my clients a fair review on appeal. My concern is therefore more over-arching, and it goes to the very foundation of our system of justice.
Court should be solemn. It is serious, and demands respectfulness and civility. It is the closest thing the secular state gets to church. In those rooms, the fate of citizens is decided. We owe it to each other to take this seriously and to restrain our language and behaviors such that anyone who happens to be watching would be impressed by how deliberate the system is. It is in this way that the courts maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
For seven years, we have not lived up to this ideal.
The fault does not rest entirely on Ms. Parks Miller. The courts have been inexcusably lax in exercising their power to control conduct in the courtroom. Ultimate responsibility for attorney behavior rests on each individual attorney, but the courts play a vital role in setting standards and enforcing discipline.
Three years ago, the court established the John R. Miller Jr. Civility Award, to be awarded to an attorney who best exemplifies the civility, decorum, and collegiality expected of attorneys. This was in direct response to the DA’s behavior. Additionally, the court issued a Decorum Order around that same time, reiterating for all attorneys those rules we are expected to follow in conducting ourselves. Neither of these efforts have worked.
The courthouse continues to be roiled by the turmoil wrought by the District Attorney. Additionally, her staff and Assistant District Attorneys, by training and following her example, have adopted many of her tactics and traits, which only adds to the inability of the court to inspire the public’s confidence.
As Americans, we choose to be governed by our own consent. This consent to be governed, derived from the sovereignty of the individual, is what sets most Western democratic republics apart. We are not ruled; we are self-governed. To this end, the public must have faith in the systems and institutions it builds to carry out this work.
It is time for the public to restore faith in its own institutions. That starts with replacing the District Attorney.
What is to be done?
Certainly, there could be better attorneys who could have challenged Ms. Parks Miller in this election, but they didn’t step up. Bernie Cantorna did. Fortunately for all of us, he is eminently qualified for the job.
Change is hard. In this case, it is unfortunately necessary. We simply cannot continue to function as a branch of government if this continues for another four years.