Why the Style of Mimi Rocah’s District Attorney Run Raises Concerns

December 18, 2019

I have the unique experience of having worked for 11 different district attorney campaigns. One of the things I’ve learned is that I wouldn’t wish the job on anyone. Here are a few reasons why.

If someone gets out of prison and hurts or even kills someone, many people will blame you.

If you cooperate with an investigation into a potential wrongful conviction case, the old guard of law enforcement in your county will despise you. If you don’t, Kim Kardashian West might introduce you to 62 milliion people as the chief prosecutor who likes to frame people.

If you charge a police officer with shooting an unarmed Black man, almost every local police officer—people your office must cooperate with daily—will hate you. If you don’t, in many bigger, bluer cities, almost everyone else will hate you.

The list goes on. And although I’m always ready to condemn the dreadful actions of prosecutors across the US, there’s undoubtedly a personal cost to these pressures. One former client of mine told me that his state’s DAs had almost all developed alcohol or drug dependencies. That makes sense, although it raises the question of how DAs treat other people who use drugs so badly.

So what’s sparking this confessional?

Mimi Rocah, a popular TV pundit affiliated with “#TheResistance” wants to be the next district attorney of Westchester County, New York. Rocah has both a progressive persona and relevant experience: She was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York for almost two decades. 

These factors could make her a good bit better than most incumbent DAs if she gets the role. At the same time, the style of her early campaign (and she is far from unique in this respect) troubles me.

Surely, the ideal DA would be a humble, restrained public servant with a firm grip of local issues and a commitment to transparency. (That would be anathema to most federal prosecutors, including Rocah’s old boss, Preet Bharara.)

Yet DA elections are frequently not about substantive policy issues but rather local celebrity, money and media optics. In keeping with this, Rocah hasn’t been talking about protecting local residents and preventing local injustices. Instead, she is saying things like “We have a criminal in the White House right now. We have a corrupt head of the Department of Justice.” These national observations are shared by many in the criminal justice reform community. Yet they are wholly irrelevant, for example, to keeping Yonkers the second-safest city in America after it spent many years roiled by gun violence

Similarly, Rocah’s campaign website says nothing about policy beyond the broadest of progressive talking points. It does, however, tell people to donate: A fundraising tweet referencing our “lawless president” has almost 3,000 likes.

Rocah’s campaign did not respond to Filter’s request for comment about her reasons for running and her local policy positions. So I turned to her prior record as a federal prosecutor for some hints as to her law enforcement philosophy. It seems less progressive than her reputation. 

Until 2009, when Rocah became head of the Organized Crime Unit in the Southern District of New York, she was deputy chief of the Narcotics Unit, spearheading many drug prosecutions, as well as the Organized Crime Unit. 

In the 2005 prosecution of Anton Spaqi, who helped people move to the US with fake passports, Rocah penned a brief that described human beings as “aliens” enough times to make even former Sheriff Joe Arpaio blush. But the vast majority of her cases that come up on PACER involve organized crime and related conspiracies⁠—the kind of stuff that would almost certainly be handled by the feds instead of the local DA. 

If she wins without expounding her motivations and local policy positions, the importance of local prosecutor-related issues will be further obfuscated in favor of mere public profiles.

None of this proves that Rocah would make a bad DA. Meanwhile, her opponent in the 2020 election, incumbent Westchester DA Anthony A. Scarpino Jr., is a known quantity. As DA, he has opposed marijuana legalization and supported drug-induced homicide prosecutions, claiming “they know it’s a killer product.” Scarpino has also made some positive moves on criminal justice reform, like ending bail for most misdemeanor cases and decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana. And he checked one box for transparency when his administration, unlike some others, respond to Filter’s 2018 drug policy survey for the DAs of the 50 most populous counties.

Westchester County’s almost one million residents already know what it is like to have a DA with television aspirations. Its DA in the 1990s was far-right FOX News host Jeanine Pirro, who used her fame to make her book Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy a New York Times bestseller. Rocah, a Democrat who launched herself to fame by being one of the loudest former federal prosecutors using the court of public opinion (i.e. Twitter) to prosecute Trump, is entirely different from Pirro by party and professed beliefs, but perhaps not by persona. 

It is to be hoped that Rocah has entered the race for the right reasons. If she wins without expounding her motivations and local policy positions, the importance of local prosecutor-related issues will be further obfuscated to the American public in favor of mere public profiles. What would DA Rocah’s position be on kids accused of nonviolent felonies being tried in adult court, since New York prosecutors can do that in what they feel are “extraordinary circumstances”? Nobody knows.

Assistant US Attorneys are usually on the wrong side of history when it comes to everything from marijuana legalization to more sweeping criminal justice reforms, and Westchester residents have every right to hear about Rocah’s specific agenda.

Photo of Yonkers by Famartin via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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