The term “Texas justice” has never conveyed procedural fairness or high standards. Since the Old West, which sometimes seems to be inordinately on the minds of current-day Texans, Texas justice has suggested impetuousness, righteousness, and lack of forgiveness. More recently, Texas, with its elected judges and penchant for harsh punishment, has been the epicenter of the anti-death-penalty movement. Political biases and a prosecutorial mindset hold too much sway in Texas’s judicial system, civil rights attorneys believe.
Rick Perry, the state’s governor for the past 14 years, doesn’t share those criticisms. But last week, a grand jury in Travis County — the state’s Austin-based Democratic stronghold — indicted Perry himself on charges of abusing his public office and coercing a public servant. The case brought smiles to the faces of Perry’s political rivals in both parties, coming as the governor is testing the waters for a second presidential run. But it has a political stink about it all the same. It bears the hallmarks of a classic miscarriage of justice, Texas style.
Perry did nothing to prompt the indictment except veto $7.5 million in funds for an anti-corruption unit of the district attorney’s office in the very same Travis County. He had threatened to do so unless Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney in Travis County, resigned her post. Lehmberg had been arrested on a drunken-driving charge, but refused to leave office. The indictment claims that Perry’s threat amounted to “coercion” under the state’s criminal code. But governors often veto spending bills for purely political reasons. Perry’s offense, apparently, was to be open about it. And in demanding that a chief prosecutor should leave office while facing criminal charges of her own, Perry was hardly going beyond what governors in other states might say or do. Whatever Perry’s motives, mere political strong-arming shouldn’t be a crime.
While Perry’s conservative defenders are leaping to portray the charges as trumped up, they should pause and consider: If a DA can cajole a grand jury into bringing an indictment for political payback, what does that say about the DA’s power generally? In Texas, with its law-and-order mentality, DAs feel intense pressure to seek maximum charges against suspects, with little incentive for caution. There isn’t much of a counterbalance; judges themselves are often elected based on promises of toughness on crime and risk political fallout if they appear sensitive to defendants’ rights. The state also lags in resources devoted to defense counsel. Perry, at least, won’t suffer on that score.
But if anyone thought the governor might cast a skeptical eye on his own state’s justice system, they’d be wrong. Perry decried the charges as a travesty, but blamed — get this — President Obama for creating a national culture that undermines the rule of law. Politics shouldn’t play a role in justice, period. But it’s in every crevice of the Perry case.