With just 11 days to go until Virginia Democrats head to the polls to choose our nominees, it’s time to weigh in on a big race in Fairfax County – the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s race between incumbent Ray Morrogh and Democratic challenger Steve Descano.
For me, my looong conversation and three-part interview with Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Democratic nominee Buta Biberaj (who is amazing, by the way!) last Monday really helped crystalize my thinking regarding the Commonwealth’s Attorney position. On point after point, with one major exception, I found myself agreeing with Biberaj…and also with Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, who is overwhelmingly in sync with Biberaj, from what I can determine.
- Biberaj emphasized the crucial importance of relevant experience – “management skills,” “handled [numerous] jury trials,” “you need to have that courtroom experience,” experience “sitting at the courtroom desk, handling a docket”; “well-versed with the criminal justice system and the rules of evidence,” etc. – in the type of work a Commonwealth’s Attorney does. Biberaj certainly has all those things, just as does Morrogh – in spades.
- According to Biberaj, the top job of a Commonwealth’s Attorney, as she puts it, is “Safety is #1,” that people “feel safe that when we get up to go to the office at the crack of dark, or to return home in the middle of the night, that we are not harmed.” I couldn’t agree more, and again, would point to the fact that Fairfax County is one of the safest places in America – certainly on a per capita basis and for its large size – in the country (e.g., see here for some stats).
- But, you might be thinking, does that safety come at the cost of “mass incarceration” and other “tough-on-crime” stupidity? The answer to that is, simply put, no – at least not in Fairfax County. Currently, for instance, Fairfax County’s juvenile jail population is “its lowest ever,” and its jail population overall is at the lowest point in decades (note: that’s not exactly “mass incarceration” going on in Fairfax County…quite the contrary, it appears). Of course, there are many people and factors responsible for that, but we need to give credit where credit is due – to Fairfax County law enforcement, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s office…and also the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.
- As Buta Biberaj said – and I agree 100% – the key is not just to be safe, but to make sure “that the justice system is based on doing justice for the people and not just focused on the prosecution.” Which is what Ray Morrogh’s goal is too. As Morrogh has said, he’s “never lost the passion for…justice, especially for the weak and those who are preyed upon.” But there’s no need to believe Morrogh on this. From talking to those who have dealt with him over the years, I have heard story after story about how Morrogh has worked with defense attorneys and others to reach a fair, humane resolution to cases, to seek justice not vengeance. For instance, as Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) put it: “Every time I’ve turned to Ray on tough issues – mental health, veterans, sexual assault, vulnerable elderly – I’ve never failed to be impressed with his compassion; his knowledge of the law; and how he’s engaged staff attorneys not just to be effective prosecutors, but to be deeply committed to using the law to find justice for all.”
- Back to my interview with Buta Biberaj, in which she emphasized “working with the youth so that they don’t end up being in the criminal justice system at all for as long as we can prevent them from being so. Fewer juvenile detentions so that we’re not having kids who are being incarcerated at a young age for crimes that are, again, not violent.” That’s exactly what Ray Morrogh does in Fairfax County, from everything I’ve heard.
- Biberaj believes that, when it comes to discretion, that this is not “cut-and-dried,” but that you definitely “swear an oath” as Commonwealth’s Attorney “to uphold the Constitution.” In addition, Biberaj believes that “it’s hard to say you should not prosecute a law that is a law,” but that you shouldn’t be using discretion to “load up” or to prosecute if all “the elements are not there.” That seems to be exactly in sync with Morrogh, from everything I’ve heard and read about him.
- On the death penalty, yet again Biberaj and Morrogh appear to be in sync, with Biberaj arguing that it’s on the books in Virginia, but that it “has to be used very limited” – only in the most “horrific” cases. Which is, almost word for word, Morrogh’s position.
- On the use of cash bail, Biberaj says she “would not be promoting that in cases where we don’t need to have it.” Morrogh says he’s “not a big fan of cash bail, I’ve never asked for a cash bail in my life in Fairfax.” Again, very similar…if anything, Morrogh is even less enthusiastic about cash bail than Biberaj.
- It goes on and on like this, so no need to belabor it. In fact, the only real difference I could find between Morrogh and Biberaj was whether or not they would have signed the “amicus brief” regarding restoration of rights to ex-felons. Biberaj says she would not have signed it, and Morrogh did. However, when it comes down to the issue of restoring ex-felons’ voting rights, note that both Biberaj and Morrogh both say they strongly support restoration of voting rights to ex felons (Morrogh said he 100% supports restoring voting rights to ex felons, that voting can’t hurt anybody but guns can).
- To quote State Senator and defense attorney Scott Surovell (D) in his endorsement of Morrogh (along with every other Virginia State Senator who lives in Fairfax County): “I have known and practiced law with Ray Morrogh for 22 years. During that time, Ray has supported efforts to raise the misdemeanor-felony threshold, reduce the life-altering consequences of minor non-violent crimes, implemented open-file discovery, and supported the creation of diversion dockets.”
- To quote Sen. George Barker (D): “Ray Morrogh is a hard-working, outstanding prosecutor, protecting our low-crime community and helping offenders turn their lives around. He is an innovative leader, working with judges and others to create veteran’s and drug courts and to divert non-violent offenders with mental illness to treatment instead of jail. Widely recognized for his expertise, Ray gets chosen to prosecute cases outside Fairfax when local attorneys cannot handle them.Let’s keep our phenomenal Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ray Morrogh!”
- To quote Del. Ken Plum (D): “Ray has always been a fair arbiter of justice in Virginia and is widely recognized for his judgment in prosecution. His use of diversion, and his willingness to give those a second chance that deserve it, have rightfully given his office a reputation of fairness across Northern Virginia. We need to take the opportunity to make sure Fairfax’s criminal justice system remains in capable hands – that is why I support Ray for re-election on June 11th.”
- I hate to agree with the Washington Post’s editorial board (in this case, I hear it was *not* Lee Hockstader, so that’s good at least!), but I think they nailed it in their endorsement of Ray Morrogh for reelection: a) Morrogh “is not retrograde or excessively punitive”; b) Morrogh “is a fair and skilled prosecutor who has been supportive of reforms such as a veterans court, mental-health court and drug court“; c) “Morrogh backed legislative efforts to raise the misdemeanor-felony threshold, and his office has been praised for being receptive to indigency and immigration consequences as factors warranting leniency“; d) the “diversion and community outreach programs need improvement and expansion, but we think the capable Mr. Morrogh, by experience and sensibility, is best suited for that task.”
- I also hate to agree with InsideNOVA, but…yep, “the reality is that Morrogh and his staff of professionals in office of commonwealth’s attorney are doing an effective job, and the incumbent deserves four more years at the helm.” Exactly.
- Finally, I agree with Morrogh that the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office – a hugely important job, overseeing a county that’s larger than several states – is “not a job for amateurs,” and “no place for on-the-job training.” But the fact is, Morrogh’s opponent Steve Descano has minimal (if any) trial experience in Virginia or in Fairfax County. To me, that’s an important qualification (or lack thereof) for this job. Also, Descano just recently joined the Virginia Bar, in April 2017 (he’s not listed publicly on the Virginia State Bar’s Lawyer Directory, but I called and they gave me the information), which is pretty recent to be seeking the Commonwealth’s Attorney position. And one more point: when you’re a challenger, you really have to make a convincing case why voters should replace the incumbent. Personally, I haven’t heard that in this race.
Bottom line: Morrogh, by all accounts, has kept Fairfax County very safe, even as the jail population is the lowest in decades, and all while instituting a wide variety of progressive reforms (see above) – including, according to Parisa Tafti (who is running as a progressive challenger to Arlington/Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos), “restorative justice Program” – based on the science and empirical evidence of criminal justice best practices. Experienced, effective and progressive? That seems to me exactly what we want from a Commonwealth’s Attorney, and good reason to vote on June 11 to nominate Morrogh for another term in office.