Notwithstanding the rich scholarly literature debating the proper roles of lawyers and the precise contours of lawyers’ ethical conduct, as a descriptive matter, the American legal system operates as an adversarial system, premised in part upon clear demarcations between the functions of different lawyers within the system. Broadly speaking, prosecutors have the distinct role of serving justice, which includes the duty to try to convict criminal defendants who are deserving of punishment, in a way that is consistent with both substantive and procedural justice. In contrast, private attorneys have a duty to zealously represent the best interests of their clients, within ethical bounds, but without taking into account broader notions of pursuing a just outcome. In some ways, criminal defense attorneys have a greater license or duty to engage in zealous representation of the interests of their clients, permitting or requiring them to use tactics that are questionable or prohibited for other private attorneys.
This Essay considers the rhetoric some judges have used to characterize the respective duties of prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys. The Essay suggests that, although this rhetoric often expresses admirable aspirations and ideals, it improperly blurs the lines between the roles different lawyers play within the adversarial system. Specifically, these judges have used language that would seem to place additional limitations on both the methods prosecutors employ in seeking to obtain just convictions and the tactics criminal defense attorneys employ in zealous advocacy of their clients’ interests. This Essay concludes that judges should avoid such rhetoric, which has the potential to undermine basic principles of the American legal system.