Grievance Against Joseph G. Curran

Who: A group of law professors filed a grievance in March 2023 against attorney Joseph Curran, alleging that Curran engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Wendyll Jones on behalf of the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. The law professors filed the complaint with the Grievance Committee for 7th Judicial District, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in the counties of Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, and Yates. The following summary is based on the complaint.

What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on a trial court ruling in People v. Jones and a Second Circuit Court of Appeals case, Jones v. West.

According to the complaint, in the Jones case, the Monroe County trial court rejected Curran’s attempt to peremptorily remove a Black juror, granting the defense’s Batson challenge. The trial court found that Curran failed to offer “a satisfactory neutral explanation for that challenge.” However, for another Black juror struck by Curran, the trial court found that the defense had not made a prima facie case of discrimination and the court did not require Curran to give reasons for the strike. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned, “[t]aking into account both the prosecutor’s pretextual justification for striking [a Black juror] and the prosecutor’s use of strikes against four out of the five black members of the first venire, we conclude that Jones had established a prima facie case of discrimination at the time he raised his second Batson challenge against the strike of [another prospective Black juror], and that the Appellate Division unreasonably applied Batson in finding that Jones had failed to do so.”

What rules are involved: The complaint notes that for many years, the United States’ long-held tradition of jury trials mostly meant juries of property-owning white male citizens sitting in judgment of anyone asserting their right to a jury trial. Race, gender, religion, and property ownership were often accepted as reasonable means to decide who could, and who could not, decide the fates of Americans as a juror. Despite over a century of litigation declaring discriminatory jury strikes unconstitutional, the practice among prosecutors continues.

The complaint notes that prosecutors wield immense power, the power to seek punishment on behalf of the state, and should be held to the highest ethical standards. The grievance alleges that Curran’s conduct violated the following ethical rules:

  • Rules 1-102 (from the Code of Professional Responsibility, later replaced by the Rules of Professional Conduct ) prohibited lawyers from engaging in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice or that adversely reflected on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.

The complaint further notes that the trial court found Curran’s stated reason for removing the juror unsatisfactory. According to the complaint, giving a pretextual reason for a strike could arguably constitute dishonesty in violation Rule DR 7-102, which prohibited attorneys from knowingly making a false statement of law or fact and Rule DR 1-102, which prohibited attorneys from engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

What can be done about it: The law professors’ complaint calls on the Grievance Committee to investigate and issue serious public discipline. It also calls for a broader investigation into this attorney’s other cases and whether this attorney’s supervisors complied with their duties under Rule 5.1.

Update: The Grievance Committee for the Seventh Judicial District advised the complainants that it reviewed the complaint. The Committee’s letter did not raise any dispute with the complaint’s factual allegations, but nonetheless “determined that further investigation is not warranted by this office” due to the criminal courts’ consideration of Curran’s alleged Batson violation:

“The focus of the complaint was to bring attention to a Batson violation committed by Mr. Curran in the prosecution of Mr. Jones. As explained in your complaint, Mr. Jones’ defense attorney made several Batson challenges during jury selection, and one such Batson challenge was granted. The trial court denied the other Batson challenges. Thereafter, Mr. Jones pursued his appellate remedies at various court levels, from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue of Batson challenges was appropriately addressed in these appeals. The Second Circuit issued a decision remanding the case for a “reconstruction” hearing on the Batson issue. After a thorough review of all the materials provided, the focal issue in this complaint has been addressed by the Second Circuit of Appeals and it issued an appropriate legal remedy. Accordingly, pursuant to NYCRR 1240.7(d)(1)(c), your complaint seeks a legal remedy more appropriately obtained in another forum, and the Chief Attorney determined that further action on this complaint is not warranted…”

Any member of the public is able to see an attorney’s record of public discipline on the Attorney Detail Report.

Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, click on the grievance below for more detail. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or case(s) mentioned; the grievance is based on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.

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