Political corruption is a hot topic these days, with both political parties trying to pin the Big "C" on their opponents. But not all corruption has to do with politicians not paying their taxes, as the following paragraphs will illustrate.
A recent news item detailed the case of two juvenile-court judges in Wilkes-Barre, PA, who apparently took millions of dollars in bribes as payoffs for sentencing juveniles to two privately run youth detention centers. The corruption occurred over several years. Young people charged with minor offenses appeared, without representation by counsel, before one of the two judges; had hearings lasting only a few minutes; and were generally sentenced to terms of several months imprisonment at one of the detention centers.
Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were charged, along with PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. Soon after the judges' arrest (January 26), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed them from the bench. An Associated Press report of February 11 mentioned the case of Hillary Transue, a Wilkes-Barre teen, but hundreds - perhaps thousands - of other young people may have been victims of the corrupted proceedings. Miss Transue was sentenced to three months at a wilderness camp as punishment for building a spoof MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal in White Haven, PA. After she served a month at the camp, counsel retained by her mother secured her release.
The AP report quoted Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is currently representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre: "I've never encountered, and I don't think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money."
The Pennsylvania high court is now studying thousands of juvenile convictions to see how many should be overturned - and the associated records expunged - because of the judicial corruption. Advocacy groups have called into question all sentences pronounced by the two judges. The AP report indicated that the jailed teenagers included some who were locked up for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note, or possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before, but were imprisoned even after probation officers counseled against it. (Welcome to 21st century law enforcement. Like it so far?)
Those who decry society's descent into a liberal milieu of "coddling" criminals might be inclined to applaud cases where the opposite has occurred. But not this case (I hope). Corruption of legal processes can never be a societal remedy, regardless of how "broken" such processes are, or are thought to be. It's like trying to fix a damaged car by doing more damage to it. The "cure" - such as it is - becomes worse than the disease.
Of course, the Pennsylvania corruption cited was far worse than simply a well-meaning attempt at "repair", since the officials involved actually profited by their corrupt actions. In a teen's limited world, those judges represented absolute power. When those young people needed mature counsel and sound judgment in their hour of need, none could be found. They were at the mercy of a court in which mercy lacked currency because power had been corrupted.
Another corruption of power happened longer ago in the USA, and might be repeated in coming weeks. I refer to the prospective restoration of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which empowered the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the "balance" of political reporting carried by radio stations, during the period 1947-1987. If the FCC determined that a station's reporting was tipped "too far" in one political direction, the commission could revoke the station's broadcasting license. This was not an unknown occurrence when the doctrine was operative.
The practical result of the Doctrine, however, was not really "balanced" political reporting, but no reporting at all. Under the threat of losing their licenses for being found unbalanced, most radio stations simply shelved political discussion, except for the blandest presentations. The fairness doctrine effectively banned radio-borne politics. As Democrats held power during most of that era, the doctrine favored them by suppressing the airing of opposing views. It was finally dumped during the Reagan administration, when Democrats held only the House of Representatives.
The demise of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the emergence of conservative talk-radio, pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, who is still the reigning king of the genre. He and a legion of others of varying degrees of renown have made Democrats (and sometimes the GOP) feel the sting of their electronic lash. Their effect on the body politic has been profound.
In 2007, conservative radio-hosts energized listeners to a furious onslaught of calls, e-mails, letters and telegrams that derailed a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, which seemed headed for sure passage in the Senate. One columnist called it the "Phone Call Mutiny". Senators complained of being "intimidated", and Democrats muttered that "something had to be done" to mute the power of radio personalities who had been elevated only by popularity to their positions of influence. In recent weeks, President Obama has called out Rush Limbaugh by name and complained that he is exercising disproportionate influence on the thinking and actions of Republicans who, he evidently presumes, would otherwise be dutifully following his lead.
Numerous commentators agree that Democrats seem likely to try to restore the Doctrine, sooner rather than later. Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice, says the ACLJ is preparing to contest the resurrected Doctrine in the courts, on First Amendment grounds. Thus, the stage is set for a dramatic reprise of the censorship policy that even celebrated liberal Justice William O. Douglas said "...has no place in our First Amendment regime."
It was Lord Acton who said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Democrats will try to suppress free speech on the airwaves because they have the power to do it. But in the end, corruption of power always pays bitter wages of distrust, recrimination and even the destruction of institutions. It will be a long time until the people of Wilkes-Barre trust its courts again. And if a Democrat Congress and president succeed in passing a reincarnated form of the Fairness Doctrine, there will be a furious - perhaps unprecedented - reaction from talk radio's millions of fans. A literal march on Washington is not beyond possibility.
Even moderate progressives who thought Democrats were the party of fairness and reason will be shocked and disaffected by these developments. Suddenly, the "good old days" of George W. Bush - a principled Christian gentleman as ever was - will start looking nostalgically good. Whatever Mr. Bush did during his tenure, he did it to protect the country and its people, not for his personal benefit, nor for his party's.
Democrats are going to show us how power can really be corrupted, and it's going to be a bumpy ride. I predict that it will be a long time before the People trust Democrats with power again.