By April Christin • June 29, 2010•Writers in Residence
Christine C. Ewell is Chief of the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, one of the largest federal districts in the country. The Criminal Division is comprised of over 190 diverse and highly skilled prosecutors who prosecute a variety of federal offenses ranging from criminal racketeering to public corruption to white collar crime. Christine earned a B.A., summa cum laude, from Texas A&M University and a J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School. She has 24 years experience as a lawyer and over 14 years experience as a federal prosecutor. As Criminal Division Chief, Christine often faces tough legal issues in managing the Criminal Division and evaluating criminal charging decisions for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, yet she manages such a diverse group of individuals with a high level of competence and great personal style and elegance. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed writing it. May the prosecution call its next witness.
What led you to want to become a prosecutor?
I decided I wanted to be a prosecutor while working in private practice for a law firm in Houston, Texas. After approximately three and a half years with my firm, they sent me to a three-week training seminar at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA) in Colorado, a premier continuing legal education seminar dedicated to the development of trial skills. The day I returned to the office after completing the course, I applied for a position as Assistant U.S. Attorney at the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Texas. Among other reasons, I applied for the job as a federal prosecutor because, after my experience with NITA, I knew I wanted to be in a courtroom. Many of the people I met at NITA were either current or former prosecutors who were incredibly enthusiastic about their experiences, such that I was completely sold that this was what I wanted to do in my professional life. One of the NITA instructors who convinced me that this was what I wanted to do was a woman named Julie Werner-Simon, who was then and still is an Assistant U.S. Attorney here in Los Angeles. I also wanted to be a federal prosecutor because I was attracted to the idea that, as a lawyer, I could work in a job where I could get up each day and do the right thing all day long, and then go home and do it again the next day.
Who has influenced your legal career the most?
The person who has influenced my legal career the most is my late father. He was a lawyer and in that capacity was an incredibly good role model, as well as being just a very good man. He was in-house counsel for an oil company for most of his life, so he was a different kind of lawyer, not being a litigator. I had incredible respect for him as a person and as a lawyer as I was growing up; it is probably fair to say that if he had not been a lawyer, I would probably not be one today. I grew up seeing and believing that you could be a lawyer and still be kind and civil to people, and that that was the way a lawyer should behave. Both of my late grandfathers were lawyers as well, and taught me the same lesson: whether you are on the same side of the table or on opposite sides of the table, there is no reason to be nasty, petty, or unnecessarily argumentative with people simply because you are representing different parties. That is a philosophy I try to carry through in my own practice.
What types of cases do you generally prosecute?
My practice historically has been prosecuting white collar crime, but for the most part in my current position I do not personally prosecute cases. Rather, in my current role as Criminal Division Chief, among other responsibilities I review and approve a wide variety of indictments and other charging decisions from throughout our office. Since taking on this position, one of my favorite aspects of the job has been becoming more familiar with the wide variety of cases that our office prosecutes and, in particular, the people who prosecute those cases, who (not unexpectedly, given my prior experiences in the office) I have found to be incredibly hardworking, smart, talented, dedicated individuals who work extremely hard representing the people of this district.
What was it like the first time you stood in a court of law and announced your representation, i.e. “Jane Smith on behalf of the United States of America.”
I don’t recall because that was 20 years ago, but I am absolutely positive I was scared to death. I started my career as a prosecutor in the Houston U.S. Attorney’s Office at a time when the only “training” provided to new prosecutors was to hand them a bunch of empty file folders and say, in essence, ‘go prosecute whoever is responsible for all this stuff.’ You learned by doing and by asking questions. It was very much ‘sink or swim.’ As a consequence, I learned very quickly to recognize that I knew nothing, and to find people who could and would answer my questions. I had to become much more independent as a prosecutor earlier than I would have had to in a more structured environment. I was with the Houston office for about a year and a half, and I ended up having five trials during that time, which is generally higher than average for a federal prosecutor. Overall, it a great experience and I learned a lot.
What was your most interesting trial and why?
My most interesting trial was a case I tried while in the Houston U.S. Attorney’s Office. The case involved a trust company that had taken investment deposits from individuals and told those individuals that their deposits were insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when, in fact, they were not. The victim depositors had not been looking for a pot of gold; they simply wanted a secure, insured investment for their retirement funds. They were thinking they would get 5 percent per year return and it was 100 percent safe, and they were fine with that. Unfortunately, the trust company put the victims’ money into a lot of speculative investments, as well as spending it on themselves, and lost it all. A lot of people lost their life savings, so from a victim perspective it was very sad and compelling. There were three defendants and it was about a month long trial, which I was fortunate to co-try with an exceptionally talented new AUSA who had spent several years in the Houston DA’s office before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I had been in the office at that time maybe just over a year so I knew next to nothing. Fortunately, it turned out well and the jury convicted all three defendants on all counts.
In terms of developing as a prosecutor, going from walking into the office and being handed an empty file folder on what was then a pretty significant fraud case to investigating it, indicting it, trying it, and having all of the defendants sentenced within a year and half, helped formulate how I subsequently tried to prosecute fraud cases. I thought there was a way to prosecute fraud cases more simply and get a just result. That may not be true for all fraud cases because some simply are bigger and more complicated and, as a result, take longer to investigate and develop, but my early experience has tended to form the way I have tried to prosecute fraud cases.
What aspects of being a prosecutor do you most enjoy, and what was the most challenging?
The aspect of being a prosecutor that I most enjoy is the investigation; figuring out who did what, how they did it, and why. I also enjoy being in trial. My least favorite part probably is the big part in the middle, filing and responding to pretrial motions and preparing for hearings.
As an administrator, I most enjoy working with the line assistants. Not surprisingly, I would guess, like most people I don’t really enjoy the administrative matters involved in my job to the same degree.
Do you miss being a “line assistant,” personally prosecuting cases?
I miss being a line prosecutor and, occasionally, envision myself going back to it. I miss the days sitting in the office with an agent, reviewing evidence, and developing strategies about an investigation, or getting ready to charge a case. As a line prosecutor there was more immediate gratification because, if I came to work each day and worked hard, and I could take somebody off the street who should not be out there. There is great satisfaction in that.
How do you balance the demands of your career with your personal and family life?
The demands of being a prosecutor, from being a line assistant to my current position, is what you make of it. There are ways to do this job where the hours are manageable, and then there are ways to do this job – as some people in this office do – where I wonder why they don’t just move a bed into their office because they never go home. I personally think the balance is somewhere in between, but this is the kind of job where each of us knows that if we do just one more thing before we go home today, that may be the difference between somebody being out on the street when they shouldn’t be or not. It’s hard to turn that off.
I am often reminded of fraud cases I prosecuted in the past when I had a full caseload, investor fraud cases in particular where the losses are so personal and can be so devastating to the victims. Unfortunately, just by the nature of what we do, by the time the agents and I would be able to gather the evidence we needed to charge the defendants, more victims may have lost money, which I found personally painful. You always want these fraudsters to be stopped before they take more money from even more vulnerable victims.
How do you mentally turn the job off?
By making time commitments to other people and deciding I am going to keep them. It is easier for me to turn the job off when I completely get away from the office, which I try to do regularly. I have vacation time, and I take it. I try to keep a regular schedule that includes people in my life who are important to me. Sometimes that may mean keeping appointments and then staying up later at night doing things I could have stayed in the office to do but decided to go home instead. That is the trade off.
In what ways, if any, does being a public servant influence or impact your private life?
Very little because I am a rule follower by nature and that is why this job comes so naturally to me. I am one of those people who believes that if you are going to have an ordered society where people behave decently to each other they have to know what is expected of them and what society’s rules prohibit, whether it involves jay walking or robbing banks or stealing other people’s life savings. If the little red hand says don’t walk, how hard is that? Being a prosecutor can often be stressful, how do you keep your own personal balance? In this job, it is easy to lose that balance. I used to be a frequent runner and there was a time in my life when I ran six or seven times a week. I felt better, I was in better health, but that unfortunately slid away because most days now I get up in the morning and I think about going into the office rather than going running. For the past five or six years, I had a weekly appointment to run with an FBI agent who is a good friend, and unless we were in trial or on vacation, we always kept that appointment. In fairness, we would talk about work while we were running so it was not entirely unplugging, but it gets back to my theory that you have to schedule these things and stick to it.
What advice would you give a young female lawyer who might be thinking about pursuing a career as a prosecutor?
My practical advice for young lawyers thinking about a career as a prosecutor is the need for some real world experience to be as good at this job as you can be. It is more than just experience as a lawyer, it is also real world experience in terms of knowing your community and the people in it, knowing how to deal with a variety of types of people, and understanding their perspective and what they want. As a prosecutor, we deal with many different types of people from federal agents, to skilled defense attorneys, to individuals who have committed various types of crimes and want to cooperate with the prosecution. You have to know how to deal with these and other kinds of people to the greatest extent possible. So my best advice is to get some experience as a lawyer, and also to get some real world experience in the community.