Ms. Dehghani-Tafti last fall defeated a longtime incumbent with a campaign promising criminal justice reform. Since her election, judges have overstepped their role to block her. Now she has filed a petition with the Virginia Supreme Court seeking relief from a sweeping and unprecedented order that undermines the discretion prosecutors normally have in making decisions about criminal cases. The order from the four judges who sit on the Circuit Court for Arlington County — Chief Judge William T. Newman Jr. and Judges Daniel S. Fiore II, Louise M. DiMatteo and Judith L. Wheat — was issued two months after Ms. Dehghani-Tafti took office and requires detailed, written justification for all decisions to dismiss, charge and settle cases. The judges framed the order as needed for efficient administration of justice and the court’s ability to consider issues, but there were no such requirements previously, and the standing order appears to be unique in Virginia as well as the rest of the country.
In a recent Post op-ed, Ms. Dehghani-Tafti detailed the hoops — written briefs, oral arguments, months of delay, a 10-page opinion from the court — she had to jump through to dismiss a simple possession-of-marijuana charge against a defendant found with less than an eighth of an ounce of suspected marijuana, for which he had a medical prescription. Was this really the best use of resources? How was justice served? And why did the court not second-guess routine decisions of previous prosecutors that helped fuel “tough on crime” policies that contributed to mass incarceration and racial disparities?
Miriam Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution said the order by the Arlington judges is part of a nationwide pattern in which judges and police are pushing back on reforms that newly elected prosecutors are seeking to advance and that their communities elected them to implement. That’s one reason 63 current and former prosecutors from across the country signed on to an amicus brief organized by Fair and Just Prosecution supporting Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s request for relief. “As elected prosecutors,” they wrote, “amici have a deep understanding of the important role that prosecutorial discretion and independent decision-making play in the criminal justice system and the strong need to insulate that discretion from outside interference, including interference from the judiciary.”
In addition to the petition filed by Ms. Dehghani-Tafti, bills pending in the General Assembly’s special session would clarify prosecutors’ authority to dismiss charges absent any evidence of bribery or animus toward the victim. We hope both lawmakers and the Virginia Supreme Court act so Ms. Dehghani-Tafti is able to focus her office’s resources as she deems best to protect the public and ensure justice.