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Jim Morrison Pardoned, Judge Porteous Impeached: The Law at Work

4 years ago
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Who says the Congress stalls on matters involving federal judges? After a trial that lasted only a day, the Senate sure voted quickly to oust impeached U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous, Jr., didn't it? There wasn't even the hint of a whiff of a filibuster when members of the august chamber voted 96-0 (on the first of four charges) to convict and remove just the eighth federal judge in American history to be laid low by "high crimes and misdemeanors." The judge's defenses -- that the bribes came mostly when he was a state judge and that there are few legal ethics in Louisiana -- unsurprisingly didn't get any traction with the politicians.

Indeed, Judge Porteous' impeachment is a wonderful example of how quickly and decisively the federal lawmakers can act on judicial matters when the don't have to worry about political fallout. It's easy to go after a purportedly crooked judge, right? There's no need to worry about annoying your base or generating negative poll numbers. Moreover, Judge Porteous, a 1994 Clinton appointee, has no natural constituency -- no push-pollsters or Citizens United-fueled pitchmen ginning up an angry mob on his behalf. Far easier for the senators to vote against him, then, than to vote for the scores of federal judicial candidates whose viable nominations (with broad bipartisan support) are currently stalled on procedural grounds by Republican leaders in the Senate. It's too bad Porteous didn't raise this vital point himself as part of his defense. In small part, it might have helped redeem him.

Judge Porteous will find plenty of kindred company grappling with the legal system. According to an important new report released Wednesday by the National Center for State Courts, "a record 106 million cases were filed in state trial courts in 2008," the most recent year available for review. 106 million cases -- nearly one for every three Americans! That's astonishing enough a figure on its own. But in context it's appalling. For while state court cases make up 95 percent of all those filed in the United States, state court budgets are being slashed all over the country. We have fewer judges and clerks and bailiffs, working shorter hours amid mandatory furloughs, having to deal with more and more cases. We are in this manner striding ever backward toward a third-world, third-rate justice system, where litigants must wait eternally for their day in court -- and where the delays themselves substantively impact the fairness of the process.

Arizona's attorney general has no such problem -- getting into court, I mean. It seems like every other case at the Supreme Court involves a fight between the federal government and Arizona officials. On Wednesday, for example, the high court heard argument in U.S. Chamber of Commerce v. Whitling, a closely watched challenge involving an Arizona law the seeks to punish companies whose managers knowingly hire unlawful immigrants. The dispute centers on whether the state has poached onto federal immigration policy, which also includes similar sanctions against employers, and by most accounts it looks like Arizona will get to keep its statute. That's a big deal because the state's more controversial anti-immigration law, the one passed this summer, the one that's already been struck down by a federal trial judge as unconstitutional, is likely to reach the justices next term or the one after that.

Just in time, you might say, for the Supreme Court to tackle the burgeoning battle over the role of "sharia law" in our justice systems. This past November, Oklahoma voters famously (and overwhelmingly) endorsed a ballot measure that bars state judges from considering Islamic or other foreign law when reaching their decisions. Question 755, as it was known on election night, was promptly challenged in federal court and just as promptly halted (for now, anyway) as unconstitutional. On Thursday, USA Today tells us, at least six other states -- including Arizona -- either have similar laws on the books or are headed in that direction. That likely means at least six additional high-profile, high-expense cases for the nation's overworked, understaffed federal judiciary left waiting, ever waiting, for the Congress to fill its empty benches.

At least the Florida justice system can breathe easier now. Jim Morrison, the long-dead and much-mourned lead singer of the rock group The Doors, was pardoned Thursday for a 1969 indecent exposure conviction. You would think that Florida would have more important matters to focus upon -- say, cases involving living people who have legitimate clemency or pardon claims. As Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center told me Thursday, Florida "has not given clemency in a capital case since 1983." But not only did Gov. Charlie Crist endorse the Morrison request -- he made it. Here is what Gov. Crist said to mark the occasion: "James Douglas Morrison -- we know him as Jim Morrison -- appealed the judgment and sentence he received after being convicted 40 years ago of two misdemeanors . . . Because he us unable to state his case for clemency before this board today, I offer to do so for him."

Having the governor argue a pardon request is a good way to get a pardon. Another way is living right -- and living long enough. And so I'll end an otherwise dreary week-in-review with a bit of heartening news. As CBS News' Jan Crawford tells us, one of the nine people pardoned last Friday by President Barack Obama was a "reformed moonshiner" named Russell James Dixon. Crawford writes: "Dixon has no contacts in Washington and used no lawyers to win his pardon. He is unknown outside his small town of 2,000 people. His daughter helped him fill out his pardon papers...His preacher, local banker and the Rabun County sheriff vouched for his character. 'I wanted to clear my name, before I die, and have a clean record,' said Dixon, who turns 73 next Tuesday. 'I figured I wouldn't ever get it done.'"

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