A few days ago, news broke that a video had surfaced of Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott speaking to a group of pastors and dismissing the rights of LGBT couples. Among other things, Northcott makes it clear he does not believe same sex marriage is marriage. However, he reveals that based on these believes he uses “prosecutorial discretion” to not prosecute same sex domestic assault as such, saying “‘there’s no marriage to protect’ so, I don’t prosecute it as domestic…”
In the days that have followed, Northcott’s remarks have become national news, but few local elected officials have spoken out. Local attorney Sunny Eaton wants to know particularly why local elected Das haven’t spoken out over these remarks by one of their own. She is calling on local and national media to put pressure on the DAs of the state to step in.
“Why hasn’t a single elected DA in TN rebuked the idea that the law does not protect minorities?” asked Eaton. “By keeping him as a member, the District Attorney General’s conference is endorsing the hateful idea that religious minorities and gays are not entitled to full protection of the laws of this country. We ask you members of the media to get an answer from our elected DAs who refuse to make any public statement about this attack on our most basic beliefs. It is their office and their reputation that is being stained by Mr. Northcott.”
Eaton has also organized a petition directed to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, asking the organization to “restore ethical leadership to Coffee County, to investigate the statements and actions of Mr. Northcott and to stand up for our highest ideals as members of the Tennessee Bar.”
The letter, the text of and a link to which follows, specifically identifies Northcott’s specific abuse of prosecutorial discretion as a violation of the rules governing his profession. “… far beyond the issue of the marital status of gay individuals (though, gay marriage is the law of the land) are the ethical implications of a District Attorney who will not serve nor protect the constitutional rights of citizens without first subjecting them to a test of sexuality or religious-beliefs. This is the highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion.”
As of this writing, over 175 attorneys licensed to practice in Tennessee have signed the letter, with more being added by the hour.
You may read the letter and see live updates of its signers here. Below is the full text:
To the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility:
We, the undersigned members and future-members of the Tennessee Bar, write to express our outrage and disappointment at Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott’s failure to uphold his oath of office, to maintain the ethical standards for licensed attorneys in this state or to protect the very citizens he is mandated to serve.
On June 3, 2019, several media outlets, local and national, reported on statements made last year (March, 2018) by the elected District Attorney General for Coffee County, Tennessee, Craig Northcott, while addressing the Chafer Theological Seminary Pastors’ Conference.
Mr. Northcott was giving a speech titled “The Role of the Local Church in Government.” At every turn, the speech, captured on video, demonstrated that Mr. Northcott does not have the moral authority or ethical judgment expected of any licensed attorney in the State of Tennessee much less that of an elected District Attorney General.
Responding to a question from an audience member about gay marriage and its status under the law, Mr. Northcott bragged that a District Attorney has unfettered discretion in whom to prosecute or not prosecute.
Using criminal domestic violence charges as a particularly disturbing example of the power wielded by his office, Northcott commented:
“So the social engineers on the Supreme Court decided that we now have homosexual marriage. I disagree with them.
“What do I do with domestic assaults? On one hand I don’t prosecute them because I don’t recognize it as marriage. On the other hand, if I don’t prosecute them then the sinner—the immoral guy—gets less punishment. What do you do?
“Well the reason where I came down in my evaluation was the reason that there’s extra punishment on domestic violence is to recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage. And I said there’s no marriage to protect. So I don’t prosecute them as domestics.”
Mr. Northcott stated that he does not recognize gay marriage and therefore, would not bring domestic violence charges against gay individuals.
We find this disturbing and unacceptable on multiple levels, the least of which being Mr. Northcott’s misunderstanding of domestic violence law in the State of Tennessee where marriage or even romantic status is not an essential element for a charge of domestic assault.
T.C.A. Code 39-13-111
(a) As used in this section, “domestic abuse victim” means any person who falls within the following categories:
(1) Adults or minors who are current or former spouses;
(2) Adults or minors who live together or who have lived together;
(3) Adults or minors who are dating or who have dated or who have or had a sexual relationship, but does not include fraternization between two (2) individuals in a business or social context;
(4) Adults or minors related by blood or adoption;
(5) Adults or minors who are related or were formerly related by marriage; or
(6) Adult or minor children of a person in a relationship that is described in subdivisions (a)(1)-(5).
But far beyond the issue of the marital status of gay individuals (though, gay marriage is the law of the land) are the ethical implications of a District Attorney who will not serve nor protect the constitutional rights of citizens without first subjecting them to a test of sexuality or religious-beliefs.
This is the highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion. He goes further and appears to encourage other elected officials such as clerks to act in a lawless manner with the confidence that “good, Christian, men,” when elected, will protect them from criminal prosecution.
Gay citizens are not the only group at which Mr. Northcott has taken aim when it comes to rejecting his ethical obligations. He has previously made statements on social media that Americans of Islamic faith or any faith that does not believe in “one true God” do not have the same constitutional rights as their Christian counterparts. The implications and effects on the day-to-day practice of law are far reaching and erode public-trust in our criminal system.
For example, the standard for recusal requires only the appearance of bias. State v. Cannon, 254 S.W.3d 287, 307 (Tenn. 2008) (quoting Davis v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 38 S.W.3d 560, 564 (Tenn. 2001)). “[T]he test for recusal is an objective one because the appearance of bias is just as injurious to the integrity of the courts as actual bias.” Id. at 307.
By specifically singling out two groups on different occasions and expressly rejecting equal protection for these groups, there is more than merely an “appearance” of bias against them. Additionally, every other minority or protected group he may not deem worthy is at risk.
Every defense attorney having a client that does not meet whatever arbitrary standards Mr. Northcott has set for morality, race, sexuality or religion must file a motion to recuse the Coffee County District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Northcott’s statements have the direct result of requiring that a disqualification motion be filed in order for defense attorneys to render the constitutionally required effective assistance of Counsel. Considering the totality of these facts, the role of his office, and the legal standard for disqualification, this is not hyperbole. Mr. Northcott has gone far beyond appearing to have bias, he has doubled-down and boasted about his applications of that bias.
Rule 3.8 [Comment 1] of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct mandates that prosecutors are expected ‘to be impartial in the sense that charging decisions should be based upon the evidence, without discrimination or bias for or against any groups or individuals. Yet, at the same time, they are expected to prosecute criminal offenses with zeal and vigor within the bounds of the law and professional conduct.” State v. Culbreath, 30 S.W.3d 309, 314 (Tenn. 2000).
Mr. Northcott’s own statements regarding the power of his office and his insistence that his personal religious beliefs override the constitutional rights of the citizens in his county violate both the spirit and plain language of Rule 3.8.
A knowing disregard of obligations or a systematic abuse of prosecutorial discretion constitutes a violation of Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4. Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 §§ (c) states that it is professional misconduct for an attorney to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and (d) specifically addresses conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. When Mr. Northcott swore an oath to become an attorney and represented intentions to uphold the constitution and laws of this country, he was acting dishonestly. During his speech, Mr. Northcott plainly stated his practice and intentions to act outside those very laws and instead set office policies based upon his personal beliefs.
We watch with deep distress as the actions of Mr. Northcott cast a cloud over the Bar’s reputation in the national spotlight. We call upon the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility to restore ethical leadership to Coffee County, to investigate the statements and actions of Mr. Northcott and to stand up for our highest ideals as members of the Tennessee Bar.
See LINK for full list of signatures