Rosemary Lehmberg, the Democratic district attorney in Travis County, Texas, spent three weeks in jail last year for drunken driving, prompting Republican Governor Rick Perry to call on her to resign. She refused -- and now her supporters hope to have the last laugh by sending Perry away for a lot longer. The criminal case against him is a farce and should be dismissed faster than prairie fire with a tail wind.
Lehmberg’s run-in with the law drew public attention not only because she had an open bottle of vodka in her car and a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, but also because a police video exposed her acting belligerently toward the officers. The judge in the case called her behavior “deplorable.” Since Perry misses few opportunities to engage in partisan grandstanding, he vowed to veto funding for the district attorney’s public integrity unit unless she resigned. Perry argued that, as a result of her conduct, Lehmberg was not fit to oversee the unit, which investigates possible ethics violations.
Partisan motivations aside, it was fair to call her judgment into question -- and Perry followed through on his vow with a line-item veto. Round one to the Republicans.
Next, a liberal advocacy group, Texans for Public Justice, persuaded a judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Perry’s veto threat constituted an abuse of power. Proving the legal maxim that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, Perry now faces two indictments for abusing the powers of his office. One of them rests on a Texas law that forbids elected officials to misuse “government property, services or personnel" -- which is clearly not what happened here. The second prohibits officials from engaging in coercion, a crime that is akin to bribery. Few legal observers give the prosecution much chance for success in court. But conviction isn't the goal here. Harassment and humiliation are. Soon, Perry will have to turn himself in to police. Round two to the Democrats.
This would be ordinary partisan tit for tat, except that a law enforcement office is involved. Political disputes should be resolved in political venues -- legislative bodies and public debates -- not in criminal courts. If Perry’s veto is an abuse of power, then the state legislature could impeach him, as it did Texas Governor James “Pa” Ferguson nearly 100 years ago. Impeachment, however, is entirely unnecessary: The legislature could simply vote to override Perry’s line-item veto. For failing to do so, should the entire legislature be indicted?
Of course not. Perry is guilty of partisan behavior, not felonious conduct. There's been no evidence to support the claim that he vetoed the funds to prevent the public integrity unit from investigating allegations of impropriety by the state’s Cancer Prevention and Research Center.
Much of the commentary following the indictment has involved speculation about how much it will damage Perry’s presidential aspirations. Some liberal pundits seem gleeful. Don’t be fooled. This is more likely to rally Republicans to Perry’s side -- earning him new supporters and donors -- and to make Texas Democrats look as craven as the Republicans who are seeking to impeach President Barack Obama. And that will mean giving back round two. Oops.
--Editors: Francis Barry, Mary Duenwald.
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David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org