Wednesday, March 22, 2006

COLUMN -- No nice way to say it: somebody's lying

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:03 AM |  

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"Falling on one's sword" was the Roman choice of death before dishonor. In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Brutus, facing inevitable defeat before the army of Marc Antony, falls upon his sword.

"This was the noblest Roman of them all," says Antony, coming upon the body of Brutus.

Redemption did not come easy for theatrical Romans. Nor is it painlessly achieved in modern politics.

Someone is lying. On Monday of this week Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court Russell Anderson took the unusual step of holding a telephone press conference to respond to the claims of DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson that he, Johnson, had conversations with justices in which they assured him that they would not overturn Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act.

Although in the past week Johnson has apologized for his remarks, stated he received no commitment from any justice and admitted he "embellished" a single "casual" conversation with a single justice when speaking at a New London pastors meeting, he still maintains that a conversation did take place.

Anderson was unequivocal in his press call that no such conversation happened. He was asked three times whether his denial was referring to Johnson's comment that he had not received a "commitment" from justices concerning the marriage statute or was Anderson in fact denying that any conversation ever took place. All three times Anderson affirmed that no such conversation about DOMA with any justice ever took place.

"I have talked with every member of my court, including the former chief justice," Anderson said at one point, "and we have not had conversations with Sen. Johnson about DOMA or how we might decide any matter relating to it. This just never happened."

Somebody is lying. There simply is no other, nicer way to say it. Either Johnson is lying about having a conversation with a member of the court, and by doing so compromising the personal integrity of state Supreme Court justices and the judicial system, or one or more of the justices is lying, in which case there has been a significant breach of judicial ethics that compromises the legislative process.

And that's OK? The rift between Johnson's claims and Anderson's denials is more than your run-of-the-mill "he said-she said" political mudslinging. It is not one political party trying to outspin the other. It is another straw on the back of a judiciary camel that already suffers from perceptions of partisanship and "activism."

That a politician embellished the truth is no shocking revelation. Denial as the first line of defense is almost expected. What is disturbing is that embellishment and denial are so easily accepted. Sen. Johnson, the DFL party and even Gov. Tim Pawlenty have adopted a "let's move on" attitude and appear content to leave a cloud hanging over the integrity of the state Supreme Court and the veracity of the legislature.

On the same day the chief justice made his statement essentially saying Johnson completely fabricated his conversations with state Supreme Court justices, the Senate DFL caucus gave Majority Leader Johnson a vote of confidence.

"We had a unanimous vote to unequivocally and enthusiastically support Sen. Johnson now and in the future," Assistant Majority Leader Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, told the Pioneer Press. "It is as simple as that."

No, it is not that simple.

We can trust neither a legislature nor a judiciary where truth is an option. We cannot simply "move on," accepting that it's OK for a legislator to "embellish" and "sand off the truth" as long as it's for a good cause. We cannot move on while the state Supreme Court remains under the shadow of ethical impropriety. Nor is it OK, as Rest also suggested, that we leave the conflicting comments of Johnson and Anderson "for them to work out."

Someone is lying — either the Senate Majority Leader or members and a former member of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Neither is an attractive alternative for Minnesotans, but it's a situation that must be dealt with.

"Falling on one's sword" means accepting the responsibility for and the consequences of one's actions. If Dean Johnson has fallen on his sword, it was lying flat on the ground. He has apologized for his "mistake," but let stand ethical questions about the judicial system and the integrity of the legislative process. He must forthrightly respond to Anderson's comments to redeem himself and repair the damage that he has done to the integrity of the legislature and the judicial system. Redemption is never easy.

UPDATE -- Last evening after the Opinion Page was set, the AP ran a wire story reporting that Gov. Pawlenty is “ready to turn the page on the controversy surrounding DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.”

"He's asked for forgiveness and a second chance," Pawlenty is quoted as saying. "I think we should give it to him and move on."

Although Pawlenty said he remains troubled by inconsistencies in Johnson's account and that of high court members, he also said "There's a lot of work that needs to be done here in St. Paul relating to education and health care and transportation and the like. The matter has been aired out pretty good and at some point we need to turn the page and get on to the business of the people."

As I wrote above, it’s not that simple. As long as doubts remain about the integrity of the court and the legislature, it is wrong to simply “move on.” Good government is “the people’s business.” If we can move on with important issues about the state Supreme Court and the legislature (not about Johnson per se) unresolved, then it was wrong to make a big deal, a front page story for a week, in the first place.

Moving on now means the flap was little more than a political issue. It was all about wounding Dean Johnson as a political leader and sucking up DFL cycles defending him. To move on with unresolved issues demeans the integrity of principled action. One must pay a fee when fighting for principle, even if the process taxes one’s patience.