The Q & A is one of my favorite journalism formats. In the hands of a skillful practitioner, a question-and-answer session can shine light on issues that might be missed or hidden in a standard narrative.
For my money, Joan Brunwasser of OpEd News is one of the most astute interviewers in the world of progressive online news. I've had the honor of being Joan's subject on a number of occasions, usually on matters related to the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.
The results of our latest conversation went online over the weekend, focusing on issues raised in my post from last week, "Obama Justice Department Finally Takes a Stand, By Cracking Down on Traffic-Ticket Fraud in Philly."
Anyone who cares about justice--from any point on the political spectrum--would be wise to check out Joan's work. Here are highlights from my most recent conversation with her:
Joan Brunwasser (JB): You recently wrote a biting piece entitled "Obama Department Of Justice Finally Takes A Stand, By Cracking Down on Traffic-Ticket Fraud in Philly." Surely, you jest.
Roger Shuler (RS): I wish it was a joke, but it's not. Eric Holder and company actually have indicted nine traffic-court judges in Philadelphia for a widespread scheme to fix tickets. This is such a low level of court that you don't even have to be a lawyer to sit on that bench. And yet, the Obama DOJ is going after them. And two of the judges are charged with fixing one ticket each.
Most people who care about justice probably don't have a problem with corrupt officials being outed, whether it's in a high-level position or not. But when you think about the justice-related problems the Obama administration has ignored--the Don Siegelman case in Alabama, the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, to name just two--you have to wonder, "Who is minding the store?"
Then we focused specifically on the Siegelman case and the unlawful actions of U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller. It's a case that the Obama DOJ has refused to touch:
JB: Let's go back to Don Siegelman for a minute, Roger. Don's conviction for a non-crime put at risk every single public official, past, present or future, who accepts campaign donations. That's a scary thought. Can you explain that one to us?
RS: It is scary on a number of levels, Joan. Most Americans probably understand the definition of a standard bribe--a person holds an office, someone offers him money or another incentive to provide a favor, and the favor gets done. That's what I call an "everyday bribe"; people understand what that is. But in the context of a campaign contribution, the law is different. And that's because our system is built around candidates raising funds in order to run for office.
I'm not sure bribery law regarding a campaign contribution even is spelled out via statute, so many officeholders have no way of knowing what it is. It is spelled out in case law, in a U.S. Supreme Court case styled McCormick v. United States. That says prosecutors must prove "an explicit agreement," also known as a quid pro quo ("something for something" deal) in order to convict for an alleged bribe in the campaign context. . . .
Fuller's jury instructions, contrary to law, did not require that an "explicit agreement" be present.
That means Don Siegelman resides in a federal prison because he violated a "crime" that Judge Mark Fuller created; it's not based on real law. This might be the scariest part of all about the Siegelman case: You can be convicted in our country of a "crime" that a judge simply pulls out of thin air on the bench. There is nothing that requires a judge to base his jury instructions on the real law.
Joan asked about Obama's curious inaction on Bush-era irregularities in the justice system:
JB: How do you explain the president's reluctance to take on any of the hard but important cases like Siegelman's? Is he afraid? If so, of whom? Of what?
RS: I can only guess at an answer. I think it's possible that Karl Rove has some damaging information about the president or his associates, and Obama doesn't want to risk any kind of counter attack from the GOP. I also think it's possible that a genuine inquiry would go right to the top of the Bush family, and Obama simply does not have the stomach for such an ugly fight.
How is this for irony? The Democratic Party, since passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, has consistently stuck its neck out to stand up for justice issues. In the process, it has paid a huge electoral price, just as Lyndon Johnson predicted. But now we have our first black president turning his back on the very justice issues that have given his party its moral authority. On the really big issues of the past 40 years, Democrats have always been on the right side of history. Now, it looks like Obama is going to break with that tradition--and in essence, that leaves us with two major parties that are both dysfunctional and ineffective on justice issues.
No wonder Anonymous and the Occupy movement have come to hold out hope for many Americans. We certainly have seen no reason to hope that Obama or Holder will restore the rule of law in our country.
What does this mean for our future? Joan raised that issue:
JB: So, where does that leave us, Roger? We've already seen how movements can be and have been infiltrated, compromised and neutralized. Is there any hope for massive grassroots pressure that can accomplish nothing less than the restoration of fairness in our court system? Without that, everyone is at risk and democracy is just a concept that doesn't very much resemble present reality.
RS: I think it leaves us in a state of decline. Broken justice systems are a classic hallmark of dysfunctional societies. Press reports about the recent rape/murder case in India stated that a number of citizens witnessed the attack but refused to come forward because they did not trust the justice system. They did not want to get involved in a process they knew to be corrupt.
We probably aren't at that level yet, but that's where we seem to be headed.
You can read the full interview here.