Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Fourth Turning Gets Personal - Part One

The little voice in my head woke me with a question: When does prosecution become persecution? That question has been rumbling around a lot in my head since the events of last Friday. It seems the grand jury called to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the Orlando mayoral election returned four indictments which included the current mayor whom I supported as well as a judge, a campaign worker whose activities form the crux of the state's case, and his campaign manager, a long-time dear friend.

The lawyer in me was not happy until I read the indictments and looked up the statute in question. It is vague at best, prohibiting any one person from collecting absentee ballots in an election, inspired by a scandal in Miami in which many actual ballots ended up in garbage dumps and a number of ballots bearing names of deceased people appeared at the polls to be counted. The primary focus of the legislation, as far as I can tell from a Florida Supreme Court case citing the statute in question, is ensuring voters' ballots are counted. The Court cited a long list of acts the statute sought to prohibit which includes "vote brokering." So far as I can tell, the actions of the local campaign worker in Orlando do not fall into any of those categories.

I'd like to say I would be surprised if these indictments (remembering that the requirements of returning an indictment in Florida are so low that grand juries could readily indict kitchen cabinets) resulted in a conviction. But given the circumstances of this case, I have to wonder. Essentially, the loser in the mayoral election, a Republican who lost to a Democrat without even a run-off, contacted the Republican governor about what he decided were fraudulent activities. Clearly the reasoning was that without such activities, a run-off would have been required. The local state attorney, a Democrat, refused to get involved because he knew some of the parties involved and feared having his impartiality questioned. So, the Republican governor appointed a Republican Baptist prosecutor from two counties north to handle the investigation. Using a highly literalist interpretation of the statute in question which prohibits anyone from being paid to handle absentee ballots, prosecutor King (who undoubtedly has his sights set on higher office after years of running the state's attorney office in Ocala) puts together a paid campaign worker who
works in the working poor African-American community to ensure that absentee ballots are cast and counted and comes up with a paid collector of absentees for purposes of fraudulently affecting the election's results and thus a voter fraud indictment.

Besides the incredibly painful personal experience of seeing my dear friend on local television cameras as she surrendered herself at the county jail for booking, there are two aspects of this situation which make me very nervous. The first is that while I am able to see the statute in question in its context - which I do not believe was intended to proscribe the particular acts in question in this case - I am not certain that contextualized reading of the law marks the average courtroom in America. Indeed, one of the legacies of legal positivism has been to read only the letter of the law, presume its validity and not inquire into context. Add to that the heavy prevalence of Sensates (who focus on the immediate, often presuming that there is no larger context - which iNtuitives demand to make sense of what they see - because they can't readily see it) in judgeships and the prospects are even dimmer. What results is a legal literalism that differs from its religious counterparts only in terms of content. The truncated cognitive process is the same.

This phenomenon is hardly confined to judicial decision making. The recent shabby treatment of Dan Rather on CBS is but one more example of the shallow thinking of the American public. Rather is clearly an egocentric man whose hubris was legendary at CBS, a rather classic fatal flaw among larger than life human figures. What is disturbing, however, is that his fall from grace at CBS occurred not because of the content of his story on George Bush's disgraceful and brief tenure in the National Guard but rather because the means by which those facts were conveyed were questionable. Lost in the discussion swirling about the fake memo were the facts it purported to relay and the witnesses who all swore them to be accurate. The form became the focus, not the substance. Of course, it's much easier to simply ignore troubling facts if one can kill the messenger up front. And who better to do so than a generation of passive recipients of superficial television and computer game entertainment which avoids critical analysis like the plague?

[To Be Continued]


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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