Political disputes should not be resolved in court

Alexander Parker and Amy Nabozny

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 15, a Travis County grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry for abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, entered into political fisticuffs with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg last summer when she refused to step down after her much-publicized arrest for drunk driving. Perry had made it clear that he would not allow state financial support to continue flowing to the Public Integrity Unit — which prosecutes political misconduct across the state and is overseen by Lehmberg — if she did not heed his calls for her resignation. In the face of her disobedience, Perry made good on his threat and vetoed $7.5 million of state funding for the PIU. At the time, the unit was investigating misconduct at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, but not by Perry himself, according to a Travis County prosecutor. Perry entered a plea of “not guilty” to both charges on Aug. 22. On Aug. 24, Democrat Mindy Montford, an Austin defense attorney, confirmed that Perry had offered her the job. Below, we have sought the opinions of key leaders of College Republicans on the matter. This is part of a Point/Counterpoint. To see the opposing viewpoint, click here

We have to admit, we are not law students. However, it doesn’t take much legal know-how to understand the recent charges against Gov. Rick Perry are nothing more than political theatrics caused by a scorned district attorney’s office. But as a history major, Amy recognizes that this DA’s office is notorious for unsuccessfully attacking major Republican politicians, from former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to former Congressman Tom DeLay. This is another desperate attempt for Democrats to maintain power in Travis County while taxpayers foot the bill. 

When Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — who’s ironically the head of the state’s Public Integrity Unit — was arrested for drunk driving, she completely tarnished her office. Not only was Lehmberg driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, she berated police officers, had to be restrained and was forced to wear a “spit shield” to stop her from spitting on the jail staff. Soon after this occurred, footage of Lehmberg’s erratic behavior during her booking was made public on YouTube. 

Anyone with an ounce of integrity would have apologetically stepped down from the office after an incident like this. Lehmberg selfishly continued to run the Public Integrity Unit even though she had previously endangered the lives of Texas residents and verbally abused policemen. Naturally, Perry asked Lehmberg to resign from her office. When she remained defiant, Perry said he’d defund her unit, which would result in the loss of her position. Again, Lehmberg defied Perry’s request and, unsurprisingly, he vetoed the spending bill to the Public Integrity Unit. 

The exchange between Perry and Lehmberg is a classic example of shrewd political bargaining. It is seen in all levels of government. If this qualifies as coercion, then it could be applied to almost any political power struggle. There is no need to create a legal precedent that allows common political squabbles to be criminally prosecuted. However, given the history of the Travis County DA’s office, we all know this is a purely political prosecution, most likely initiated out of a fear that Perry would appoint a Republican DA. Even liberals outside of Texas agree this is a shoddy indictment. From The New York Times to David Axelrod, there is national public criticism from the left.

Texas Democrats can claim Perry used bad judgment or that he should have sought another route to remove Lehmberg, but to pin him as a felon is childish. They don’t care if this lengthy case will be paid by taxpayers, or that our governor could spend the rest of his life in prison, as long as they control their blue dot in a deeply red state. 

Pursuing this case against Perry is more than just reckless with taxpayer money. It sets a terrible precedent of interfering with how officeholders carry out their duties. Perry fully explains the reasoning for his veto of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding, which has become the focus of the indictment. The governor states that “despite the otherwise good work [of] the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued State funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence. This unit is in no other way held accountable to state taxpayers, except through the State budgetary process. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.” Perry has simply used his constitutionally-mandated power of a veto to shape policy. He even replaced the old district attorney with another Democrat, demonstrating this wasn’t even about politics for Perry. If the governor can be charged for ensuring through legal means that the Public Integrity Unit has a leader with integrity, what is an appropriate use of constitutionally-mandated powers? No politician — Republican or Democrat — benefits from an environment where a use of legal power becomes illegal simply because it makes the other side unhappy. 

Laws concerning coercion and abuse of power by public officials were never meant to stop actions sanctioned by one’s office. They were meant to combat outright violations of an officeholder’s duties like bribery and embezzlement. These laws should never be weaponized to fight in political disputes. Let debates and elections decide the merits of legal acts by our public servants. A fear of indictment and even punishment for performing legal actions only hinders officeholders from carrying out the duties of their office.

The indictment of Perry is reckless for many reasons. The governor never should have been prosecuted for using powers sanctioned by his office to remove an official who had so obviously failed in her duties. The case against Perry is largely frivolous and sets a dangerous precedent of using courts as a battleground for political disputes.     

Nabozny is the president of College Republicans. She is a history junior from Farmington Hills, Michigan. Parker is the communications director of College Republicans. He is a Plan II and Business Honors sophomore from Plano.