Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dean Johnson: Lie vs. lie

The Dean Johnson blowup continues -- fanned by Republicans and gay marriage opponents, downplayed by Democrats.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson adds the latest fuel:

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson on Monday said flatly that no member of the court -- including former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz -- ever spoke to Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson about the state's marriage laws.

"This just never happened," Anderson said.

If true -- and we should keep in mind that the judiciary has a selfish interest in preserving its own reputation -- then Johnson just flat-out lied when talking to pastors about gay marriage. Further, his evolving retractions of that January statement appear to contain ever-finer shades of truth.

None of this is making Johnson look good, and it shouldn't. He should be taking to heart the high price one pays for playing games with the truth.

But does this really change anything? No. No one is accusing Johnson of habitual lying, or fraud, or using his office to commit crimes or enrich himself.

He should be embarassed. He should be contrite. It should be brought up during his re-election campaign so that voters have a chance to make their views on the subject known.

But should he resign, as anti-gay-marriage groups are calling for? No. That's for voters to decide, and it speaks poorly of the marriage-amendment lobby that they would push for such an extreme sanction. Tom DeLay still has his seat -- and he's been charged with actual crimes. Only intemperate voices called for him to quit Congress.

Should Johnson resign his leadership post, as some Republicans have suggested? That is a slightly more reasonable course, but again, no. A single lie that does not involve a substantive wrong does not deserve that punishment. And Republicans should be wary about pushing for that too vigorously, lest they invite close scrutiny of every statement they've ever made to see how closely they track with reality.

I expect my politicans to tell the truth, but I also recognize that they are human. And while they need to be held to a higher standard, the punishment should fit the crime. In my book, the ongoing flogging that Johnson is getting constitutes appropriate and sufficient punishment, with voters getting the chance to render final judgement on election day.

Finally, the most interesting thing to me are the political calculations being made -- calculations that could end up forcing Johnson to fall on his sword even if it turns out that he didn't lie in January.

When it gets down to it, either Johnson or at least one justice is lying. Unfortunately for Johnson, everyone -- including Johnson -- has a strong interest in protecting the reputation of the state Supreme Court. People expect partisanship from politicians, but expect their judges to be neutral arbitrators. Faith in that concept is one of the key supports of the balance-of-powers system.

Republicans, whatever they may actually think about "activist" judges, find it convenient to treat the justices as unimpeachably honest in this case, because their real target is Johnson. Johnson and the Democrats, for their part, cannot defend themselves without either slandering the judiciary or revealing and destroying any actual sympathies that might exist between some justices and the DFL. Either course would ultimately hurt the DFL more than it would help them.

As long as they don't overplay their hand, the Republicans have a win-win situation here. But the rest of us should be aware that this is largely a minor political game. Weigh Johnson's lie against his 36 years of service and make up your own mind, without undue input from either Republican attackers or DFL defenders.

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