“U.S. Prosecutors Have Too Much Power” Inaugural Newt and Jo Minow Debate to be held November 10

October 09, 2015

A video recording of the inaugural Newt and Jo Minow Debate is available on the Intelligence Squared website.

Debate held at Northwestern Law

On November 10, 2015, at 6:30 p.m. Northwestern Law will host the inaugural Newt and Jo Minow Debate, on the topic “U.S. Prosecutors Have Too Much Power.” The debate is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. It is approved for 1.5 Professional Responsibility CLE credits.

The event is presented in partnership with Intelligence Squared Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to “restoring civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse.” 

Today, a national debate rages about the functioning of our criminal justice system. Is it fair? Does it serve the ends of justice and public safety? Does it apply equally to all? Prosecutors, endowed with both autonomy and immunity, hold immense power within this system. They control secret grand jury proceedings, who will be prosecuted, and the specifics of charges. Moreover, those charges are often based on complex laws—and enforced by long mandatory minimum prison sentences—creating strong incentives for defendants to capitulate to lesser charges, perhaps even to crimes they did not commit. Indeed, more than 90% of both federal and state court cases never go trial, but instead are resolved through plea bargaining. Autonomy and secrecy, complex criminal code and mandatory minimums-in combination, these factors have given prosecutors enormous leverage, and the opportunity to wield it relentlessly and selectively.

The result, critics charge, is the undermining of the right to jury trial, mass incarceration, public skepticism regarding equal justice, and immense pressure on every defendant.

Yet there can be no justice without empowered prosecutors. And is abuse really endemic? Isn’t the national crime rate down over the long-term, showing that these powers work? And would changes reducing the leverage of prosecutors in the criminal justice system weaken their critical responsibility to prosecute crimes of great complexity, keep communities and the nation safe, and secure justice? Do prosecutors have too much power?

  • Paul Butler
    Paul Butler
    Fmr. Federal Prosecutor & Professor, Georgetown Law
  • David Hoffman
    David Hoffman
    Fmr. Federal Prosecutor & Partner, Sidley Austin
  • Nancy Gertner
    Nancy Gertner
    Fmr. Federal Judge & Sr. Lecturer, Harvard Law
  • Reid Schar
    Reid Schar
    Fmr. Federal Prosecutor & Partner, Jenner & Block

Arguing in support of the notion that prosecutors have too much power will be the noted criminal justice expert Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, professor at Georgetown, and author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. He will be joined by Nancy Gertner, former federal judge and celebrated criminal defense and civil rights attorney, who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Arguing against will be David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, City of Chicago Inspector General, and now a partner at Sidley Austin.  Hoffman will be joined by Reid Schar (JD ’97), a partner at Jenner & Block and a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Newton and Jo Minow
Newton and Jo Minow

The Newt and Jo Minow Debate series was established as part of a $4 million gift from friends and colleagues of Newton N. Minow (JD ’50), Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus and Life Trustee of Northwestern University. 

Following his graduation from Northwestern Law, Minow served as law clerk to the Honorable Fred M. Vinson, Chief Justice of the United States, and as assistant counsel to Governor Adlai Stevenson. He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Federal Communications Commission in 1961, where he drafted legislation that expanded the broadcast spectrum, provided the foundation for the Public Broadcasting System, and promoted the implementation of communication satellite technology. He also served as chairman and director of the Public Broadcasting Service, where—among many other accomplishments—he reintroduced and preserved the televised presidential debates. 

PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff has said: “There may be no one alive who cares more about America’s democracy than Newton Minow, who was there at the creation of the modern political debate.” 

Minow first suggested televised presidential debates in a memo to Governor Stevenson in 1955. After the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, there were no televised presidential debates until 1976, when Minow and colleagues fought tirelessly to resurrect them. Minow co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates and has remained involved with the Commission on Presidential Debates to this day, now serving on its Board of Directors. 

“It is difficult to quantify Newt’s extraordinary impact on civil discourse in this country,” said Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez. “This debate series honors his commitment to elevating the public dialogue throughout his career.” 

The Newt and Jo Minow Debate is open to all. For tickets and additional information, please visit the Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series page on the Law School’s Alumni & Friends website.