Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is the Supreme Court ready to legalize the theory and practice of corruption in government?


Do not fret, worried sir. Think of it as "free speech,"
not "potential conflict of interest," and it's all OK.

"The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in a case that could put a constitutional cloud of doubt over hundreds -- if not thousands -- of state and local ethics laws across the country.

"For the first time, the justices will consider whether a legislative vote is protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech -- specifically, whether states may forbid officeholders from voting on matters that appear to involve a personal conflict."

-- from the Web version of Nina Totenberg's
NPR Morning Edition report

by Ken

From the sober way Nina Totenberg frames the legal issue in her lead, you might not guess how preposterous this case is. And given the level of ignorance and corruption currently infesting the Supreme Court -- thinking of the thugs who not only refuse to reconsider the idiotic ruling that "money" equals "speech" (as in "free speech") but have expanded the doctrine to include corporations' right of "free speech" -- you worry that the Gang of Five might actually be prepared to rule for the guy who whines, "I used my best judgment, and they punished me for it."

Well, Sparks (Nevada) City Councilman Michael Carrigan may indeed have used his "best judgment," but that judgment was only good enough to tell him that he needed to seek legal advice before casting a particular vote. That judgment is apparently not good enough to suggest to him that he may have gotten -- perhaps even engineered -- bad legal advice

Because what he is asking the Supreme Court to ratify is a doctrine that the right to free speech guarantees the right to corruption. Well, hey, why not? What the Nevada Commission on Ethics ruled was a conflict of interest is, at root, a matter of money changing hands, and we know that that's a mere matter of the exercise of free speech, and that can't be abridged.

Some facts please, Nina.
The case comes from Sparks, Nev., sister city to Reno. In 2006, during its election season, the city council was voting on a high profile and controversial proposed new casino project called the "Lazy 8." Council member Michael Carrigan's longtime friend and three-time campaign manager, Carlos Vasquez, was on retainer to the Lazy 8 developer for $10,000 a month.

The Nevada ethics code requires public officials to recuse themselves from voting on any matter involving a close relative, an employer, a business associate or anyone who has a relationship that is "substantially similar." With that in mind, Carrigan asked the city attorney whether his relationship with Vasquez required him to abstain from voting on the casino project.
According to Carrigan, the city attorney told him he should disclose his relationship. "[He said] I could vote if I felt that my friend was not getting any other benefit out of it that a normal citizen wouldn't get," he says.

Following that advice, Carrigan did disclose and then voted to approve the Lazy 8 project. Opponents of the project filed a complaint against him with the state ethics commission.

The state ethics commission had a different view from that attributed by Carrigan to the city attorney: Uh-uh, you can't do that.
But Caren Jenkins, the commission's executive director, notes there was no punishment. "Because the violation was not willful, no sanction was imposed," she says.

Jenkins went on to explain the commission's reasoning.
Jenkins says Carrigan's violation was based on the fact that he had an ongoing business relationship with his campaign manager, who provided business services at a cost to the campaign, and that the two had a longtime close, personal friendship.

"Mr. Vasquez was a friend, an adviser [and] a confidant," to Carrigan, explains Jenkins, noting that Carrigan testified Vasquez was "like a brother" to him.

However, Carrigan, "a retired U.S. Navy aviator," was so "outraged" by the ruling that he went to court, and "the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring that 'voting by public officers on public issues is protected speech under the First Amendment.'"

We're not told what drugs the Nevada Supreme Court justices were on when they arrived at this conclusion, according to which our pols should feel free to buy and sell their votes on the open market, since those votes are "protected speech." After all, buying and selling protected speech is now the way the nation's governing is done.


In his pleading today, Nina tells us, Carrigan's lawyer, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, was expected to " tell the justices that the commission's action struck at the heart of the democratic process."
Rosenkranz argues that "the manner in which Nevada has decided to regulate politics puts an untenable burden on the sorts of relationships and political loyalties that make democracy work."

Indeed, he contends that relationships like the one between councilman Carrigan and his campaign manager are the "very fabric of our democracy."

"It's a relationship that arose because Vasquez believed in Carrigan, believed in what he values and wanted to help him get elected to office," Ronsenkranz says. "And if a state declares that the political activities of a campaign volunteer will get the elected official disqualified from an important vote, volunteers will stop volunteering, and candidates will be reluctant to associate with volunteers, campaigns will be weaker, and so will our democracy."

The "very fabric of our democracy," eh? There's no way of knowing whether counselor Rosenkranz is really this stupid, or just this corrupt.

What he's talking about -- the unfettered ability of money to exercise its free-speech rights (we have established that money has free-speech rights, haven't we? send a memo to Chief Justice Roberts) by buying as much government as it can afford -- may well be "the fabric" of something, but I refuse to accept that that something is "our democracy." And to return to Nina's portentous lead, if the Supreme Court thugs get this one wrong, the clock may be ticking on every ethics law in the country.

Which will be just peachy for the fabric of our democracy.

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