Lawyers are good at making valid distinctions. As a lawyer myself, perhaps it is self-serving to say that. But from my perspective, the old saw about law school teaching you to “think like a lawyer” is true − and mostly for the better, rather than for the worse.
To be sure, not every distinction, no matter how far-fetched and attenuated, is equally valid. In an adversarial system like ours, however, it’s largely up to judges to decide which arguments are valid. And if an attempted argument is downright frivolous or made in bad faith, the system has sanctions available for attorneys who cross the line.
Last spring, the Minnesota Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether a criminal conviction remains valid even if the prosecutor lacked a valid law license when the conviction was obtained. The case involved an assistant Hennepin County attorney named Gemma Graham who had failed to do mandatory continuing legal education for twenty years. Even though she had a restricted law license, Ms. Graham prosecuted a first-degree murder case against Alonzo J. Graham (no relation). In a unanimous ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said the conviction must stand because the defendant was not able to show any prejudice from the prosecutor’s lack of a valid license.
The prosecutor who didn’t meet the CLE requirements will face two types of sanctions. The Minnesota Supreme Court placed her on probation for two years, and she also received unspecified internal discipline within the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
On every level, this is the right outcome. Respect for rules is important, and if CLE requirements are mandatory for a law license, that should mean something. But it doesn’t follow that an otherwise valid conviction should be thrown out, just because the prosecutor was not in compliance.