Grievance Against Christopher J. McGrath

Who: A group of law professors filed a grievance in March 2023 against attorney Christopher J. McGrath, alleging that McGrath engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Santiago Valdez, Paul Morant, and Lawrence Scott in three separate cases on behalf of the Queens District Attorney’s Office (QDAO). The complaint was filed with the Grievance Committee for Second, Eleventh and Thirteenth Judicial Districts, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. The following summary is based on the complaint.

What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on a court decision in People v. Morant and Valdez and documents related to another case, People v. Lawrence Scott. The complaint notes that McGrath prosecuted Valdez in 1993, who was sentenced to 40 years to life, Morant in 1995, who was sentenced to 25 years to life, and Scott in 1996, who was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.

According to the complaint, the QDAO initially discovered McGrath’s misconduct in two cases, People v. Morant and People v. Valdez, and submitted a joint motion with the defense to vacate these two convictions based on this indefensible misconduct, as it “‘cannot defend a conviction so … tainted by unconstitutional discrimination.'” The complaint notes that McGrath himself admitted using a jury selection guide that the Supreme Court, Queens County, described as an “abhorrent document” that “identifies ‘good’ Black neighborhoods; advises against selecting Hispanic or Jewish jurors; . . . [and] counsels against choosing too many women.”

The Supreme Court, Queens County agreed, finding McGrath committed Batson violations and reversed both convictions on that basis. In the 2020 decision reversing the Morant and Valdez convictions, Justice J. Joseph Zayas cautioned against downplaying the significance of these smoking gun documents, warning that “it may be tempting to minimize the significance of the disturbing revelations central to these motions by writing McGrath off as a lone ‘bad apple’ or by noting that these cases were tried nearly a quarter of a century ago.” The court noted that “whoever created the sheet, as well as whoever relied on it during the jury selection process, ‘appeared to proceed as if Batson had never been decided.'”

The court noted that McGrath “may not have been the only assistant district attorney using the discriminatory guide to select juries in Queens County.”

According to the complaint, a year after the misconduct in Morant and Valdez was uncovered by an internal QDAO investigation, similar misconduct was revealed in McGrath’s prosecution of Lawrence Scott and that conviction was also reversed.

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.

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 McGrath’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.

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 the trials conducted by the Queens District Attorney’s Office from 1990 to the present, including an examination of the prosecutor’s jury selection notes, in light of the racist and sexist notes revealed in People v. Morant and Valdez. Finally, the complaint calls for an investigation into other cases prosecuted by the same prosecutor and to determine whether QDAO supervising and managing attorneys complied with their duties under Rule 5.1 of Professional Conduct.

Update: As of January 1, 2024, the Grievance Committee has not informed the complainants whether there was (or will be) an investigation, what any investigation revealed, and whether discipline was (or will be) imposed as a result of this alleged misconduct. Deprived of such information, the public has no way to evaluate whether this government body is doing its job. We call on the Grievance Committee to make its proceedings and findings in this matter transparent to the public.

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.