Sunday, January 22, 2012

Politics Before Leadership

Was anyone else amused this past summer to watch Governor Martin O'Malley declare himself the new champion of gay marriage in Maryland?  He had just sat out the 2011 legislative battle over gay marriage, passively watching it go down to defeat.   

But Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York (a potential national rival to O'Malley) threw all of his political weight and prestige behind it in New York and emerged victorious.  Suddenly O'Malley pledged to work hard for gay marriage next time around.

O'Malley engaged the same kind of political calculation when it came to a Court of Appeals case that could cost taxpayers many millions of dollars.  Giving a new interpretation to the old Public Defender's Act, the court decided earlier this month that Maryland taxpayers must pay lawyers to be available around the clock at every detention center in the state to represent the poor within 24 hours of their arrest. 

The Sun published an op-ed piece in which I explained the financial, logistical and philosophical folly of this decision.  But the issue didn't hit anyone unawares.  The lawsuit was first filed over three years ago.  In Lots of Money, Little Justice, I warned legislators and the governor to amend the Public Defender's Act to avert a costly court decision. (I also described the kind of advocacy behind the lawsuit, and what we might expect for our money.)

More than that, I spoke to O'Malley's point person for criminal justice, urging the governor to take the lead.  Her response?  O'Malley didn't want to appear to "take away anyone's right."  He wanted the courts to make a favorable ruling and do the dirty work that would keep him out of it.

They didn't.  And now legislators are scrambling to figure out what to do.  They could waste an enormous amount of money funding lawyers around the clock, or jump to some other solution that's worse.   The latter hopefully won't happen with Joe Vallario as House Judiciary Chairman. While I often disagree with him, I do respect the fact that Vallario doesn't go for quick-fix political responses to events.

While the solution is easy--amend the Public Defender's Act--it's harder to do in a rush.  And now it does appear like taking away a right.  (It isn't.  Legislators would just be clarifying their original intent.)

O'Malley could have made it easy a few years ago with a little leadership.  He could have achieved a fair, inexpensive, and measured result.  

But that was too much, apparently, to ask of a politician who prefers to wait on the sidelines while he measures which way the political winds are blowing.  

1 comment:

  1. Lord Halifax made a virtue of 'trimming'; alas, Martin is no Halifax...