Chris Christie appealed to his authority as a former prosecutor in a speech at the Republican National Convention Tuesday. He purported to “present the case on the facts” against Hillary Clinton to “a jury of her peers,” calling for the amped-up GOP crowd to judge her guilty of various allegations, amid chants of “Lock her up!” Some observers took Christie to be auditioning for an attorney general appointment in the potential Trump administration, but in fact the speech was an open rejection of ethical norms for lawyers that disqualifies him to be a prosecutor of any kind, let alone the nation’s top one.
Under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers, drafted by the American Bar Association and adopted in various forms by the states, it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” or to “engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice” whether or not they are in court. Lawyers must refrain from knowingly or recklessly making false statements to tribunals as well as third parties. Prosecutors have special responsibilities that include the obligation to refrain from making public statements likely to prejudice the accused. But the New Jersey governor, who was recently spurned when Trump picked Mike Pence as running mate, apparently had no qualms about accusing a political opponent of various things he implied are criminal. His speech functioned as a mock trial — one riddled with false statements and omissions that kept the fact-checkers writing all night.
Now, of course, Christie isn’t himself prosecuting Hillary Clinton for anything. He isn’t even a practicing attorney, so he isn’t at risk of being sanctioned by the bar for violating these ethics rules. But presenting himself as a lawyer to a mob calling for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton — who hasn’t been charged with any crime, after multiple politically motivated investigations — is an ethical problem nonetheless.
Scholars have argued that the professional responsibility rules should apply to politicians who are lawyers, even when they aren’t acting as attorneys representing clients. The spectacle of Christie claiming to act “as a former federal prosecutor” to hold Clinton accountable is a starker than usual illustration of how lawyer-politicians can undermine respect for the rule of law.
Christie used legal language and the credibility of his former position as a United States Attorney to accuse Clinton of not only bad judgment but criminal behavior. He explicitly acknowledged the Justice Department wouldn’t prosecute but called for her to be “prosecuted” right there in the Quicken Loans Arena and “in living rooms around the nation.” It’s extremely irresponsible for an attorney to suggest that the public’s verdict should control when prosecutors don’t have a case.
That kind of rhetoric, popular among Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans, encourages the idea that we don’t have or need a system of laws applied impartially. We should be able to “lock her up” because authoritarians like Christie and Trump say she’s corrupt, and their supporters agree. Or, as New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Trump delegate, said Tuesday, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
Christie hasn’t gone that far — he’s only said publicly that Clinton should be convicted. But he’s also indicated he knows making such statements is unethical. The day before his RNC speech, he refused to say he would prosecute Clinton if he became AG, telling a delegate, “It is very tempting to give into what I know would be an enormous applause line.
“But…it would be wrong for anyone outside the system to prejudge something before they get in and to say that they will utilize the enormous power of the position of the attorney general of the United States.”
He’s correct. Encouraging the idea that your political opponent should go to prison on the basis of unsubstantiated claims looks like “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice” — which lawyers may not engage in. Unfortunately, Christie is more interested in playing a lawyer on TV than acting like one.
Watch highlights from day two of the 2016 Republican Convention.