Prosecutorial Power in an Adversarial System: Lessons from Current White Collar Cases

64 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2004


Successful disposition of the cases against Arthur Andersen, Martha Stewart, high-level Enron officers, and scores of mid-level executives testifies to the authority of federal prosecutors. A review of these cases identifies the sources of prosecutorial power and traces their effect in the investigation, charging, and sentencing phases of white collar crime.

A comparison of the roles of American federal prosecutors and their European counterparts in investigating, charging, and sentencing corroborates the judgment that our present system has a decidedly inquisitorial cast. The power of inquisitorial prosecutors is constrained by inherent safeguards that impose formal and informal limitations on their discretion. In contrast, federal prosecutors exercise greater power in the investigation and charging phases and exercise even more authority in sentencing and plea bargaining. The combination belies adversarial values.

Retreat from the adversarial trial can undermine the goal of deterring business misconduct in several ways. Inconsistent sentences that result from plea bargains can forfeit the moral authority of criminal law in the business community, the very group one wishes to deter. In contrast, public trials provide a rationale for sentences and educate the business community about the illegality of specific conduct, a requirement for optimal deterrence that is especially relevant in white collar crimes. Public trials also strengthen shared social norms of the business community against fraudulent practices. In sum, disposing of criminal cases through quasi-inquisitorial investigation and plea bargaining forfeits an opportunity to reinforce the standards of lawful business conduct and thereby strengthen deterrence.

Suggested Citation

Moohr, Geraldine Szott, Prosecutorial Power in an Adversarial System: Lessons from Current White Collar Cases. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Vol. 7, 2004. Available at SSRN:

Geraldine Szott Moohr (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204-6060
United States

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