Bob Franken

Law and Odor

It won’t happen but it should. Democratic Senator Mark Begich of Alaska won’t step aside, but he should. Chances are, former Senator Ted Stevens would clean his clock in a new special election, so don’t look for Begich to do the right thing.

Stevens has become the latest symbol of how things worked at the Justice Department in the Bush Administration. In fact, it’s fair to say that during those eight shameful years it could more accurately be called the Miscarriage of Justice department.

The Stevens convictions for seven ethics violations clearly led to his defeat at the polls, after a 40-year career where he became one of the most powerful members of the Senate. He was unbeatable back home in Alaska, and he was steamrollered by thuggish prosecutors at Justice.

Convinced that they were all powerful, they didn’t even really bother to properly conceal their contempt for rules based on a presumption of innocence (you remember that one, don’t you?). Their violations of fundamental decency were so blatant that they violated rule number one, which is “Don’t Get Caught.” Their tactics were such a public embarrassment that the new attorney general decided that the case should be dropped. The judge has agreed and threw out the case. But obviously the irreparable damage to Stevens was done.

Now the A-G will have to work on restoring credibility to his government lawyers, whose job it is to convict the bad guys. The problem is that they need to play fair as they try and convince juries that their defendants really are bad guys. All too often they do not. In their zeal, they become convinced that legal technicalities and constitutional protections get in the way of their battles to preserve Good over Evil. In the process, they become the bad guys.

What is not clear is whether Attorney General Holder wants to simply get rid of this problem or really address it. The truth is that this extends far beyond the federal government. We need to rein in prosecutors at all levels. They can be unstoppable, what with a grand jury system that relies on a low standard of “probable cause” to indict anyone.

True, indictment is not conviction, but it is a legal action against an individual that has devastating consequences in and of itself. Prosecutors can and do abuse the system. Their reasons range from ambition to personal vendettas to misguided “law and order” beliefs. Can we forget the Duke University lacrosse team debacle? I hope not.

They even have their own propaganda, that long-running TV show Law and Order. It is very effective in the way it celebrates district attorneys as heroes, routinely hamstrung by devious defense lawyers and their obviously despicable criminal clients. It may be shown in color, but it portrays the whole system in simple-minded black and white.

The argument is frequently made that there have to be strong weapons to use in the fight against crime. No doubt about it. But the challenge of our system is to maintain public safety while, at the same time, preserving the protections that are at the very heart of this American experiment.

Anything less is dictatorship. What happened with Sen. Stevens can happen to any of us if we are not very careful. While we won’t see a new election in Alaska, what is even more vital is action against these renegade Justice Department lawyers.

The judge has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the prosecutors to see if they should face criminal charges of their own. At the very least, disbarment proceedings should be considered.

While we’re at it, let’s consider sanctions against the other attorneys at Justice who stand accused of knowingly distorting the laws about torture. Obviously no action should be taken until all their rights have been protected, something that didn’t always seem to concern them

The message needs to be sent that the power of the United States is based on a need to recognize its tradition of limitations. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Meanwhile, Alaska joins Illinois in having members of the U.S. Senate who got there in questionable ways. As for Democrats, who are so hell-bent on creating as big a majority as they possibly can, they should be embarrassed. Of course they won’t be. In politics, power easily trumps embarrassment. It’s not a concern.

But self-preservation is, and now that one of their own elected officials was unelected, they might want to pay attention to make sure that they too are not also dispatched in such a cavalier way. It can happen to them. And, oh yeah, to the rest of us.

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