By Rory Fleming
After the resignation of Allister Adel, the Maricopa County (Phoenix metro area) top prosecutor who could not handle the job, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Rachel Mitchell as her replacement. Part of it was politics, since state law mandates that the outgoing prosecutor be replaced by an interim prosecutor of the same political party; in this case, a Republican.
Unfortunately, Rachel Mitchell is categorically unfit to be the top prosecutor of the fourth-largest county in the US.
Supreme Court watchers nationwide will remember that Mitchell was the person called by Senate Republicans to give softball questions to now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh regarding accusations that he committed attempted rape as a high school student. She also questioned Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, by attempting to poke holes in her story. That is the same thing she would have done if she was Kavanaugh’s defense lawyer.
At the time, Mitchell was the chief of the sex crimes unit under former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who now sits on the Arizona Supreme Court. Montgomery was one of the most “tough on crime” prosecutors in the nation, once having gone so far to prove his bonafides as to call a veteran who smoked marijuana to deal with trauma an “enemy” of the United States at a public forum.
Curious if others could see the problem with the Kavanaugh hearing prosecutor being the chief of sex crimes for one of the biggest local prosecutor’s offices in the nation, I then reached out to a variety of attorneys and victim advocates to see if they would sign a letter calling for Mitchell’s demotion. To my pleasant surprise, there was significant interest.
Signers of my letter included several rape and child sex abuse survivors, a former Assistant US Attorney in charge of sex crime investigations in Oklahoma, and an President Obama-endorsed candidate for US House.
That definitely colored my consternation when I heard that the Board of Supervisors chose Mitchell over two other credible Republican candidates. Why choose someone with so much baggage, much of which involves the increasingly violent tensions between the nation’s two political parties?
I actually worry that this is exactly why she was chosen: to drive Americans further apart, rather than closer together, in this crucial swing county. If Mitchell’s inevitable Democratic challenger in the next general election points out her ethically dubious past, it will allow Republicans to bring the race into national culture war territory. What Mitchell did was wrong, but it was also instrumental in solidifying a Republican majority on the Supreme Court for at least a generation. For smarter Trump voters, that was always the prize they were keeping their eyes on.
A prosecutor race should not be part of a culture war. Qualifications for county prosecutor should be simple. Questions should include ones such as, can you ethically handle the responsibility of the job? Can you fight for victims of crime, while not succumbing to the desire to over-incarcerate people who pose little or no public safety risk?
Republicans see Democrats as striking first to dismantle that status quo by enlisting the funding help of George Soros for their candidates. But that is a red herring. The Soros involvement was needed to calibrate the politics of criminal justice, which had become untethered from true public safety concerns in favor of contests of punitive bravado. Now that the voices of all stakeholders, including justice-involved people and their families, can be heard in these debates, Soros’s involvement has become less necessary and has died down. Good riddance.
Just like what we saw in the Ketanji Jackson Brown hearings, though, Republicans salivate for vengeance. While picking Mitchell initially looked like a dumb move, it’s actually very savvy, because it all but guarantees an upcoming major prosecutor race defined by extreme partisan nastiness. I for one am not looking forward to it.
Rory Fleming is an attorney and a writer