May 4, 2020 • 28M

#17 Prosecutor and Candidate Rich Finneran

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Stephen Harrison
Notes on Quotes is a wide-ranging interview series where interesting people share a quote that’s meaningful to them. Hosted by Stephen Harrison who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. He's currently a columnist for Slate. Throughout 2020, Harrison is interviewing authors, scholars, actors, entertainers, and more about a quote of their choosing. Brought to you by Aftermath Ventures, LLC.
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Rich Finneran is a former federal prosecutor based in St. Louis who is running for Attorney General in Missouri. During his time as a federal prosecutor, Finneran handled two of the largest financial fraud cases ever prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Missouri. He was also a constitutional and appellate law instructor at Washington University School of Law.

So what quote are we chatting about today?

I've selected a quote from the Bible. Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11, “I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.”

The is the first quote from scripture that we’ve had on the series. Out of all the verses in the Bible, why did you pick this one?

I’ll tell you, it’s a hard thing to come up with one quote to select! But ultimately, I picked this one because it captures something about my view of the world, as well my thinking on personal and political issues. The way you see understand your circumstances and other people’s circumstances is inevitably going to have an effect on what sort of policies you think you should have in place in government.

I appreciate this quote for what it says about how often there are things that may happen to us that are not our fault, or not things that we have direct control over. We’re painfully aware of that right now with the coronavirus—there’s a lot that we are dealing with that is outside our control.

That undergirds why I believe in having policies that help to protect vulnerable people, that help to open up the doors of opportunity to people who may come from underprivileged backgrounds. That’s why I believe it’s important that we adopt criminal justice measures that don’t just punish and incarcerate people, but also work to adapt our systems in order to prevent crime from happening in the future.

All of this probably comes from my belief that, while we do our best in the world to be the best people that we can, often there are things that will happen either around us or to us that are outside our control. We should have a society that tries to nonetheless make the world as fair and just for people as it can.  

I’m thinking of the last line: “time and chance happen to us all.” Are your views on fate informed by this quote?

That’s what really draws me to this quote: the idea that we can all strive to live our best lives and be the best at whatever our passions might be, but at the end of the day, not everything is in our control. And that’s true no matter how much we might wish it to be the case.

That has a lot of personal meaning for me. I’ve been a very hard-working person in my life, and I’ve strived to achieve a lot of things, but I’ve also been plagued by personal setbacks. When I was a 16-year-old teenager, I lost my mother to breast cancer. And when I was a 21-year-old in law school, I lost my father to kidney cancer. 

I’m sorry to hear about your parents. That must have been hard in high school, especially.  

I have a vivid recollection of the day after my mother had passed away. I was sitting with my father and sister in our dining room. I’m a 16-year-old boy, and my sister at the time is 14. Neither of us at that moment had the tools to process or deal with what we’re about to do. What my father said to us was, “The last thing your mother would want is for this to become an excuse that would set you back in school or the great path that you’ve been on throughout your life.” And I remember at the time, just sort of seizing on to that.

I was a person who was brought up in a family that emphasized hard work and doing well in high school. I had sort of spent my life believing that if I worked as hard as I could, and did whatever my parents asked, that would lead to a great life. And while I think that actually turns out to have been true, there’s also a lot of aspects of life that are out of your control. In my case, the loss of my parents drove that firmly home for me. It gave me I think more of a sense that there are times in people’s lives where they’re not responsible for their own circumstances, and we all need to find ways to lift each other up. It also helped me learn to separate the things that you do have control over, while at the same time understanding that there are some things that you’ll never be able to control.

You know, the current coronavirus crisis—I think this makes this more evident than ever. There’s something that is so much bigger than any of us, and we don’t have any power to control, and we’re having to find ways to support each other and protect the vulnerable.

Should tragedy and bad circumstances be considered by our judicial system?

That’s a great question, and it’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. I spent seven years in St. Louis where I prosecuted some of the largest white-collar fraud cases in the history of our state, involving insurance fraud and a Ponzi scheme.

One thing I learned pretty quickly is that when a crime occurs, it’s a real tragedy for everybody involved. We think about the immediate victims in the case, who in the cases I prosecuted, lost their livelihoods, lost their savings. But then there’s also the tragedy of what it means to the defendant, who will generally serve a prison sentence. And for the defendant’s family. There are really no winners when it comes to a criminal case.

I think that has shaped my thinking around criminal justice in terms of what we can do to prevent crime from happening so we can stop the tragedies from occurring as opposed to simply punishing the wrongs after the fact. It’s also caused me to think about what we can do to reintegrate people into society after they’ve served their sentences, so that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we are creating more crime and wrongdoing by failing to address the underlying things that drive people to a life of crime in the first place.

This quote made me think about meritocracy. Because the quote says the swiftest person doesn’t always win the race, and yet they often do.  The strongest person often wins the battle. Does our society place too much emphasis on merit?

There are obviously certain occupations where we want the most talented person to be doing the job. We want the best pilots flying our planes. We want the best doctors taking care of us. All of that is very reasonable.

At the same time, I think we have to realize that we don’t all come into life with equal chances and we don’t all have the same support structures and opportunities presented to us that enable us to be the most successful we can be. That’s one reason why I think it’s so important that we have a vigorous and strong educational system that helps to life people who may not have the best circumstances in their own home lives or economic lives. That way we give them the opportunity we all want to have—to become the swiftest, the strongest, the smartest, the most understanding people we can be.

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