Sat, Apr

A Teenage Prosecutor Is a Bad Idea


YOUNGEST PROSECUTOR - “Teenager, too young to buy beer, qualifies as lawyer in California,” Sky News incredulously told its readers in the U.K. on December 9. More restrained but still dubious was Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff’s headline for the Washington Post: “He passed the bar this year at 17. Now he’ll be prosecuting your case.”

Rosenzweig-Ziff went on to explain, not only has California legal prodigy Peter Park become the youngest person in California history to pass the bar exam, Park, now at 18, has been sworn-in as a deputy district attorney for Tulare County. Park is the youngest practicing prosecutor in California according to USA Today, and presumably he’s also the youngest practicing prosecutor in the United States—at least one can only hope. 

Why? Because all due respect to Park’s amazing academic achievement: A teenage prosecutor is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea for Park, and it’s a really bad idea for the people of Tulare County, too; it sets a dangerous precedent for who we choose in our society to exercise the most powerful position in the justice system. Teenagers don’t have the requisite emotional intelligence to be prosecutors—period. 

As reported by USA Today, Park began high school at 13, and while in high school, completed a 4-year online J.D. program at Northwestern California University School of Law; Park did so under a state bar rule allowing students to apply to law school without first completing an undergraduate degree (by taking “College Level Examination Program” exams instead). According to the ABA Journal: “After Park passed the bar, his father self-published a book called “Fast-Track Attorney: Passing the Bar at age 17.” (Park’s sisters, ages 16 and 13, respectively, are, also following in their brother’s legal footsteps—even hoping to surpass his record.)

“There are people out there who are smart like me. I wouldn’t say I’m like a super genius. I would just say like, reasonably smart,” Park said speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle. Park’s sisters and parents have moved with Park—3 hours from Park’s childhood home—so Park can work at his new prosecution job.

In 2015, in her blog “The Problem with Young Prosecutors,” Mimi Coffey compellingly wrote why “giving young lawyers [like Park, still living at home under his family’s watchful gaze,] the most powerful job society holds is a mistake.”

Coffey cogently explained: “The first missing link to all of this is life experience. For example, how do you take a privileged young person and expect them to weigh the differences of a young mother stealing for food versus a professional thief who steals for a living? As for DWIs, how does one expect a young person to be able to evaluate the differences of a person who drank as an out of character mistake (not likely to do it again) versus someone with a propensity that has never been caught?”

Coffey continued: “Equity is being able to put things into proper perspective based on facts, circumstances and life issues…One must live to understand others. For many, kids fresh out of law [school] with their first real job are learning to balance a real budget. How are they to know the feeling of supporting a large family or making ends meet as a single mom? As for dishing out community service, how are they to understand what is valuable to society’s time priorities?”

Without being exposed to a diverse array of people and experiences beyond high school—such as college, travel, or working in the adult-world—Park is simply not well-positioned to do what prosecutors have to do most: relate to all kinds of people. Harvard Law School’s Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest’s “Prosecution Guide” observes: “Among the many qualities of successful prosecutors, one of the most important is the ability to work with all kinds of people.” Indeed, “The ability to work with a diverse group of people is a key quality of most successful prosecutors.”

Elsewhere I’ve written about the difficulties young attorneys of color face within their own offices advocating for greater leniency in plea bargaining. The pressure for a teenage minority prosecutor like Park to not push back against office policy will be greater still—due to his youth. Not only that, when it comes to exercising his discretion in critically important matters—such as deciding when or when not to prosecute—Park will be shortchanged by his aforementioned lack of emotional intelligence, the consequence of the insufficient life experience so well elucidated by Coffey. Without that emotional intelligence, how can Park be expected to fairly and properly assess when and where to allocate criminal responsibility—and with it the awesome power of the state—as a prosecutor in highly charged, emotional, adult situations?

Though Park is not a babe in the woods, self-admitted whiz-kid teenage-esquires—vaulting right over the conventional 4-year college experience, doing law school online in tandem with high school—is not the precedent that should be set in the hiring of new prosecutors. It’s not a good development for the law. See too, relatedly, on this point: Gray Robinson, “Family Lawyers and Emotional Intelligence,” familylawermagazine.com, February 22, 2022 (“Do emotional intelligence and family lawyers go hand in hand? Being a successful lawyer isn’t always about winning cases: it’s about being an effective and compassionate human being.”).

United States District Court Judge Gerard L. Goettel also once explained this well, in August 1988. As was then-reported by Marvin Howe in the N.Y. Times: “Lawyer, 19, Must Wait for the Bar,” Goettel “upheld a requirement that people seeking to take the state bar examination be at least 21 years old. But he struck down a requirement that they show that they entered law school no earlier than the age of 18. The plaintiff, Stephen A. Baccus, graduated from the University of Miami law school in 1986 at the age of 16 and [was] believed to be America’s youngest lawyer.”

About his decision to uphold 21 as an “age threshold” for the bar examination, Goettel said he wanted “to help ensure that the New York bar possesses the requisite maturity to interact with clients and serve as effective advocates of their client’s interests. He noted that at least 40 states have minimum age requirements for entrance to the bar, and that 17 of those use 21 as a threshold.” Goettel wouldn’t be a proponent of teenage prosecutors like Park—for good reasons.  

(Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public. defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on “X”/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq)