Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Government as prosecutor versus government as defendant

As an attorney, I have to do Continuing Legal Education to keep my Bar membership, so I've been listening to audio CDs about environmental trial advocacy education. They consist mostly of dialog between attorneys who are government prosecutors for environmental crimes and attorneys who represent environmental crime defendants.

What struck me as in interesting was the main prosecuting attorney's advice to opposing counsel to be cooperative, not to use a scorched-earth legal strategy, to admit fault where fault occurred and to work to fix the problem. He argued that defendants get much better results than fighting with everything they've got.

This struck me because my experience is that the government doesn't follow its own advice when it's the defendant. I've been involved in lawsuits against the government as an attorney and as a client staff member here at CGF. While there are exceptions, the usual government response has been to fight the legal battle and let the court force them to take a decision rather than reach a compromise settlement.

Maybe it's unsurprising that the government doesn't follow its own advice. But then the lecturer who was an attorney representing defendants spoke, and she agreed with the prosecutor, telling her fellow attorneys that they're much better off striking a deal than they are fighting.

Maybe that just reflects relative power positions - the government doesn't need to compromise when mere citizen groups sue it, but corporations do need to compromise when the government sues it. But then, the government prosecutor brought up the scenario of citizen groups suing corporations, and again advised defense attorneys to compromise with citizen groups.

So, all the advice seems to say that when the government has a bad case, it should compromise. So far I've seen little sign that they take their own advice, a result that's bad for the environment and just costs taxpayer money. Let's hope that changes.


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