Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Democrats' political theater isn't any better than Republicans'

By now, the sordid story of Montana Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull forwarding a racially-insensitive and derogatory e-mail about President Obama is widely known. After initially showing even more insensitivity in the way that he minimized the incident, Judge Cebull eventually apologized and requested that the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit court review the incident.

However, that apology and pending review aren't good enough for two House Democrats who, sensing an opportunity to further embarrass Republicans, want Judge Cebull hauled up for a Congressional hearing.
Two Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee want a hearing examining the conduct of the federal judge in Montana who emailed a racist joke implying that President Barack Obama’s mother had sex with a canine.

Reps. John Conyers and Steve Cohen wrote to Rep. Lamar Smith (R), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, urging an examination of the “full ramifications of Judge Cebull’s conduct on the integrity of the federal judiciary and to consider whether further action by the Committee is warranted.” Legislative action should be on the table, they wrote.
Let's be clear. Judge Cebull displayed remarkably poor judgement in the initial incident (an especially disturbing quality for a, well, judge). The judge's actions undermine trust in the fairness of his court, and his delayed and reluctant apology might not be enough to restore that trust.

However, that decision now rests with a panel that is specifically tasked with that type of investigation. The judicial review panel should be allowed to make its decision without interference from Democrats.

While hearings like the one proposed by Reps. Conyers and Cohen might provide Democrats with some modest short-term political gains, they will actually do more harm in the long-run. First, most reasonable people will immediately recognize this as pure political gamesmanship. Reps. Conyers and Cohen show remarkable bad judgement themselves for wasting valuable Congressional time and resources on a game.

Second, there is breath-taking hypocrisy in Rep. Conyers calling anyone else to examine the full ramifications of someone's conduct on an institution's integrity or to consider whether further actions are required when presented with evidence of despicable behavior. Rep. Conyers' past behavior doesn't give him much credibility here.

Third, the representatives are undermining the investigative process and general credibility of the judicial system itself. Judge Cebull's actions might be a one-off example of poor and tasteless judgement (heaven knows, Judge Cebull wouldn't be the first one to go in for a tasteless joke), or they might reveal something more deeply rooted. However, as familiar expression goes, there's an app for that--the Ninth Circuit review panel. When the representatives call for their own hearing, they are effectively saying that the review panel is incapable of carrying out its work.

Finally, the representatives are missing an opportunity to lead by example. The only way to end the gamemanship in Washington is for responsible people to stop playing the games.

Representatives Conyers and Cohen could act more responsibly, but we shouldn't hold our breath waiting, not when the game is afoot.