Thursday, November 30, 2006

COLUMN -- Sen. Johnson is gone, but court controversy is not

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:11 PM |  

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Soon-to-be-former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, with recent remarks, has set the controversy over claims that he had conversations about the Defense of Marriage Act with Minnesota Supreme Court justices back to square one. Once again, there’s no nice way to say it – somebody’s lying. The question is, does it still matter? I think it does.

Individuals are fallible and make mistakes. Sometimes we have to admit, “I screwed up.” We can forgive those who admit their errors, accept the consequences and make things right.. But when someone embellishes and sands the truth to mitigate consequences, we then put our faith in “the system” to sort things out and make things right. We sometimes forget, however, that systems are human institutions. They “screw up” too. In our desire to identify the bad guy, we often miss the more important focus – making things right.

In this case, we’re still identifying villains. No one has yet addressed what went wrong with the system. No one has focused on making things right. We haven’t earned the right to move on. That’s why the Johnson controversy still matters.

It started in January. Speaking to a ministerial association about a constitutional amendment defining marriage, Johnson said several Supreme Court justices told him the court wouldn’t touch Minnesota’s existing marriage law — consequently, a constitutional amendment was unnecessary. A pastor secretly taped Johnson’s comments.

In early March this column made Johnson’s comments about the court public and said they stained the integrity of the court. Over the next several weeks, in various contexts, Johnson admitted he “embellished the truth.” He said he received no assurances from justices about the law, but he insisted he did have conversations with justices about same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Russell Anderson, on behalf of the court, denied such conversations (which would have been a judicial ethical violation) ever took place.

At that point Dean Johnson became the focus of interest. Lost was the more important issue of Supreme Court integrity. If Johnson were telling the truth, then it would be up to the court to take disciplinary action and make things right. If the justices were being truthful, it was up to the Senate to expose Johnson’s comments as false and restore trust in the court. Or it could become partisan.

At the end of March, Republicans filed an ethics complaint against Democrat Johnson. A bipartisan Ethics Committee was formed to determine if Johnson’s comments violated Senate rules. Confronted by the larger question of whether Johnson or the justices were telling the truth, the committee opted for a safer, narrower view. It merely required Johnson to apologize to the Senate for his initial “embellishment.” The question of who was telling the truth went unanswered; the integrity of the court remained in question.

With the truth still “out there,” it wasn’t surprising that complaints were filed with the Board on Judicial Standards questioning whether justices violated judicial ethics in conversations with Johnson. In July, the board dismissed those complaints. It concluded “there is no evidence that any promises, commitments or predictions” were made by justices concerning same-sex marriage.
The Pioneer Press quoted the board as saying, “Each Supreme Court justice independently denied ever having any conversations with Sen. Johnson on any issue relating to the definition of marriage. Sen. Johnson confirmed no such conversations took place.” That seemed to settle the matter – until last week.

On Minnesota Public Radio or in subsequent interviews, Johnson variously accused Chief Justice Russell Anderson of “an outright fabrication” and said that members of the Court made “inaccurate statements” to the Board on Judicial Standards. Johnson returned to claims made, but not substantiated, before the Senate Ethics Committee – that he has depositions from former aides supporting his contention that while no assurances were given, he had conversations with justices about same-sex marriage.

It’s ironic that Dean Johnson provides the best appraisal of what’s at stake. He is quoted in the Minneapolis paper saying he has “lost a great deal of respect for the court system at the highest level in Minnesota.” He wonders, “who else was served an injustice” by the Supreme Court.

Welcome to square one. We shouldn’t be here – a place where public trust in the state Supreme Court depends on the credibility of a man that distinguishes between lying and “sanding off of the truth.” Despite the fact that Dean Johnson lost his bid for reelection, the Senate and the Board of Judicial Standards owe the public an explanation of why the system failed. The system needs fixing. The integrity of the court needs restoring. We need to make things right before we may move on.