2009 has started badly for honest communications. I’ve watched while President Obama reached “across the aisle” attempting to share the glory of trying to save the U.S. from the Bush Depression, with Republicans. I’ve watched as Democratic leaders in the California statehouse tried to convince Republican assemblymen to consider schools, infrastructure, and public health to be as important as the instructions from their corporate masters.
In both situations, I’ve watched as checkbook discipline kept the Republicans united against our United States, against short-term economic recovery, and against long-term public interests, always spouting off about high principles. But three recent legal cases involving Republican extremists and the judicial system show just how insincere Republicans corporate tools are in their pronouncements about being strict on principle and on crime and enforcing the law.
Property Rights Vanquish Tenant Rights
The first case involved a decision by Orange County Judge Leon Emerson. Judge Emerson granted an eviction and ordered some tenants to pay months of back rent to their landlord. The tenants appealed. The Court of Appeal found that the tenants had been withholding rent, as the law allows, because the landlady was refusing to make necessary repairs. The Court also found that the landlady refused to comply with the law requiring her to obtain an occupancy permit before renting the property. It found that Judge Emerson improperly refused to allow the tenants to present any evidence at the trial. And it found that Emerson had refused to make a formal statement of the reasons for his decision, even though the law clearly required him to do so.
Judge Emerson wasn’t coy in his logic. The landlady wanted money and she should get it. The legal rights of the tenants had no significance of any sort for Judge Emerson. He simply couldn’t imagine any reason to enforce any of the laws the landlady was violating. After all, she was in the superior class of property owner, and the tenants were only consumers, a lower class who have no rights Emerson saw fit to protect.
The situation was actually worse than it sounds. The tenants had good lawyers. They actually cited the right laws to Judge Emerson. He wasn’t just another Orange County political appointee, with insufficient legal knowledge or experience. He was fully informed about what the law was. But he simply refused to apply the law if it would result in lower profits for a businesswoman.
As a good law & order conservative, he had to choose between the law and a social order that gives superior rights to business interests over injured consumers. As part of the Republican Party’s corporate sycophancy, he abandoned the law to favor the corporate criminal.
Willful Prosecutorial Midconduct
The second case is from Missouri. An innocent man was released from prison after spending 15 years in prison for a murder that the prosecutor knew he hadn’t committed. The prosecutor 15 years ago was Kenny Hulshof, who went on to become a six-term, ultra-corporatist Republican congressman before running for the Missouri governorship in 2008.
This year, after more than a decade of effort by the prisoner, an honest Missouri judge ruled that Hulshof had concealed evidence and lied to the Court while prosecuting a 17-year-old boy for murder. Hulshof knew that he couldn’t get the boy convicted with the real evidence in the case. So, he simply threw out his legal responsibilities as a prosecutor and lied. He concealed evidence, including police notes that he knew would help the defendant.
Tragic, you may think, but mistakes happen. We shouldn’t condemn a man, particularly a Republican leader, congressman, and gubernatorial candidate for one misdeed, years ago. WRONG! It turns out that this was not an isolated misdeed. It turns out that four men whom Hulshof put on death row have had their sentences reversed. Not reduced, nor commuted, but completely reversed. The reversals are each due to “prosecutorial errors.” The legal system is too polite in its language to say that the men were sentenced to death due to intentional misconduct.
But we need to put his conduct in context more than we need to be polite. Hulshof is a strident proponent of more prosecutions and harsher sentences for law breakers. He wants children to be prosecuted and executed like adults. He claims to be a devout Catholic and he is a very vocal “pro-life” campaigner. But this devout Catholic has no problem violating the Commandment against bearing false witness if it helps improve his conviction statistics. And he doesn’t think that the Commandment against killing applies to him when he is working to get men sentenced to death using false evidence and lies to the court and the jury.
Paying LIttle Price for Concealing Evidence
The third case may be the worst of all. Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Ben Field has been suspended from law practice after the State Bar Court found that he, like Hulshof, concealed evidence in cases and intentionally violated the rights of criminal defendants. Field was on the fast track to be another great Republican “law & order” prospect for higher office. To get there, he was willing to trample anyone in his way.
But the really terrible thing about the Field case is that after he was suspended, the Santa Clara District Attorney jumped to his defense, and made clear that Field will continue to work in the D.A.’s office (although he won’t be doing trials). And Field is the second Santa Clara deputy district attorney to be punished for misconduct, this year. The other deputy was punished for misconduct in a murder trial. This passes for Republican principle in Santa Clara.
Neither the California, nor the national Republican Party has condemned nor even criticized Judge Emerson, Congressman Hulshof, or D.A. Field. We hear how terrible it is that murderers get away with crimes. But is that because the legal system is faulty or because ambitious men, who want convictions statistics more than justice, are too eager to lie, to conceal evidence, and to mislead the courts in the short term, with no concern about what truth may appear after they’ve moved on?
LA Case Brings Ray of Hope
A fourth case, from Los Angeles Superior Court, offers a more hopeful view. Conservative, corporate-friendly employees of L.A.’s Redevelopment Agency promised $44 million of taxpayer’s money to a private corporation to buy and renovate a downtown building. Instead of doing the renovation, the corporation turned off water for the building tenants, shut down the elevators even though some tenants were wheelchair bound, and went on a campaign of illegal evictions and other violations of redevelopment laws.
Private attorneys, working for free, sued the city and the corporation, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, in December 2007. Instead of letting the case drag on for years, as so often happens, the attorneys pushed it, and in the beginning of this February, they achieved a settlement. Under the settlement, injured tenants receive actual money damages. The corporation agreed to obey the laws and protect the tenants’ rights. And the Redevelopment Agency will institute procedures to protect tenants in similar projects around the city.
What the attorneys did was convince the Court to order the Redevelopment Authority to not give the corporation any more money until it was complying with the law. Wow! Does that sound like liberal judicial activism or what!? The judge said that the law applies to corporations and the politicians they buy just as much as to consumers, poor people, and just plain citizens!
Yes, we can count on Republican spokespeople to condemn the L.A. Court judge for his interference with business as usual. But we can also see that there are judges in our courts, here and in Missouri, and no doubt elsewhere, who are trying to be less biased than Leon Emerson. There are lawyers here, in Missouri, in Santa Clara, and elsewhere, trying to be more honest than Kenny Hushof or Ben Field.
As Gropenator Schwarzenegger and the California Republican Party use the state budget crisis as an excuse to further reduce legal resources for consumers, families, and the poor, we should remember those judges and lawyers who fight for the law, rather than for pure corporate greed, political advantage, and personal gain.
Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at [email protected]