Aiding Prosecuting Attorneys in W.Va.

Some prosecuting attorneys are very turf-conscious, determined to handle every criminal case in their counties. Occasionally, a few have the good sense to recognize when they need help, however.

Officials in Preston and Mingo counties have sought assistance from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey during the past several months. But Morrisey, though eager to lend a hand, has found himself handcuffed.

Both the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Lawyer Disciplinary Board have determined the attorney general has no authority to assist county prosecuting attorneys. Their stances prompted Morrisey to ask the state Supreme Court to overrule the other entities.

Both counties requesting assistance needed it, at least temporarily. In Preston County, Prosecuting Attorney Mel Snyder sought Morrisey’s assistance because of a crush of criminal cases. Last year, a Mingo County commissioner asked Morrisey if he could send an attorney to serve as an interim prosecutor. That happened after the previous prosecutor resigned because of federal corruption allegations against him.

While Morrisey’s desire to help is commendable, there are good reasons for concern about his proposal. One is that counties, not the state, are supposed to fund prosecution of criminal defendants. It is not difficult to envision a line of county officials applying for prosecutorial help from the attorney general, to save substantial amounts of money in their own budgets.

An open-ended authorization for Morrisey to use state-funded attorneys from his office to help counties would be asking for trouble.

Still, the high court should not reject Morrisey’s request out of hand. There may be valid reasons why counties occasionally would ask for help. Small counties with one lawyer in the prosecutor’s office are examples. So are those where, as in Mingo County, prosecutors leave office suddenly.

This, then, would seem to be one of those situations in which the statue of Lady Justice comes to mind. Supreme Court justices should weigh the pros and cons of Morrisey’s petition in an effort to find some way his office can offer assistance – without being taken advantage of by counties where officials just don’t want to pay to keep prosecutor’s offices independent.