Friday, December 4, 2009

Governors Aren't Judges: Huckabee's Well-Meaning, Politically Fatal Mistake

Keep reading: I'm going to tell you the politically fatal problem with the 1,033 commutations and pardons by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of which led 9 years later to the massacre of four policemen in Lakewood, Washington on Sunday.

I heard Gov. Huckabee yesterday on my favorite talk radio show, and I was disappointed with his continued defense of his 2000 commutation for killer Maurice Clemmons.  (I also heard my fave host catch him today on an inconsistency between assertions on the show and on another interview later in the day.)  I get the feeling that Gov. Huckabee, whom I like and admire generally, is looking for the most acceptable spin on a serious mistake.

His new tack paints Maurice Clemmons as the youthful victim of a racist and over-zealous judicial system, and his role in commuting his sentence from 108 to 47 years as righting that wrong.  He insists he thoroughly read every page of the thick file detailing Clemmons' violent and aggressive behavior while serving the 11 years that preceded his petition. Huckabee, who says he granted clemency on the recommendation of two judges, couldn't know what Clemmons would do after his release--he didn't have a crystal ball, did he?

Hearing Gov. Huckabee sympathetically describe Clemmons' robbing an elderly woman (he threatened he'd shoot her; she called his bluff so he whacked her down and ran off with her purse), minimizing it by saying the haul was only $16, was jarring enough. But he never mentioned that in 1990 (a decade before the clemency petition), Clemmons added 60 years to his already lengthy list of sentences by burglarizing a State Trooper's home, stealing $6,700-worth of property, including a gun. Omitting that offense, Huckabee went on to say that a 108-year punishment for "two crimes committed at age 16" was excessive.  Not only did the governor have the facts wrong; not only was his compassion misplaced, but to my mind he did something even worse.

He implied he was wiser than the state's entire judicial system.

For a politician to exert his power in a few cases--okay. But Gov. Huckabee considered interfering with the outcomes of trials and processes of justice several times a day. (He granted more than three times the petitions of the previous three governors combined.)  He claimed he read the records of all the prisoners petitioning for clemency or pardon, evaluated them, and dismissed 92% of them.  He granted 8% of the requests, thereby discarding sentences decreed by judges who had presided over cases beginning-to-end.

Now, it is entirely possible that a sentence can be overly harsh. And that racism was a factor in Arkansas, as Gov. Huckabee said yesterday on the radio.  That's why there's an appeal process. That's why juries, rather than individuals, render verdicts.

It's also wonderful to show empathy, and one of Gov. Huckabee's most appealing characteristics is his caring demeanor. He comes across as perhaps the most visible example of "compassionate conservatism," combining solid values with regard for others' welfare.

But a governor represents the executive, not judicial branch of state government.  Voters hadn't elected him to spend time absorbing details of 12,912 convicted criminals' cases to determine which sentences to change.  Gov. Huckabee's insistence that it would have been far easier and more politically safe to routinely deny all the petitions rather than scrutinize them, seems a bit self-serving, suggesting he magnanimously endured the risk to doggedly pursue justice and fairness for these victimized prisoners.  Nice guy; not his job.

That's why Gov. Huckabee probably ruined his chances as a presidential candidate.

I would not want a president who felt compelled to examine and correct Supreme Court decisions, any more than I want a Court that furthers a social agenda via sweeping rulings that state legislatures should decide.  The "emanation of a penumbra" scotched state legislatures' varying laws on abortion, and similar derivative language may yet nullify the will of millions of voters who've firmly supported traditional man-woman marriage.

A governor and a president do pursue a platform, but as "executives," their roles are administrative. Yes, they can put forth or veto proposals, but can't single-handedly enact or eliminate laws.  We have three branches of government, and a bicameral legislature to prevent kingly pronouncements.

And that may be what makes me so uneasy with Gov. Huckabee's stance on Maurice Clemmons' commutation. He sounds a bit too much like the imperial President Obama, who is so sure he knows what this nation needs, and sounds ever-so-slightly frustrated that even some in his party don't see things his way.

I don't really support the idea of executive clemency--but in any case, governors should use it only rarely, in special circumstances.  Gov. Huckabee pardoned or commuted a sentence nearly every other work day for ten years in office.  And he says he read 12.5 times as many case histories as he granted.  Something's wrong with those priorities.

With the flags at my kids' school at half-mast, mourning the deaths not far away of four dedicated police officers, we are reminded that the purpose of imprisonment isn't primarily punishment or deterrence, but public safety.  No matter how crowded jails get, the single most important criterion for parole or release should be the prisoner's potential to harm.  Even the eloquent and intelligent Mike Huckabee can't convince us that in 2000 Maurice Clemmons' record suggested he met that most fundamental standard.


  1. Very well stated and I wholeheartedly agree. The primary job of prisons is not to rehabilitate the prisoner (a nice "bonus" if it happens)but to prevent the criminal from doing more harm to society. When, during the interview, Gov. Huckabee made a point about this being only 2 of 1033 cases which have gone wrong, I immediately said to myself "so far". How many other time bombs are ticking among the 1031 other beneficiaries of Gov. Huckabee's "wisdom"?

  2. I'm sorry, but even though Huckabee's initial commutation may have been well-meaning, I can't accept that his explanations have been well-meaning. I saw him tell too many half-truths about Romney during the campaign to ever be able to trust Huckabee (I could give example after example). There's even an example in the comment posted before this one. Birdie bob said that Huckabee claims only 2 of 1033 cases have gone wrong. That's a half-truth. Many of the criminals committed crimes and ended up back in jail. These two cases are the only ones where the offenses were this awful, but how many people heard his statement and assumed all the other people went on to become productive members of society?

    I had a great initial impression of Huckabee. He is great with words, has an innocent looking face and an "aw shucks" demeanor, but he puts all of those natural characteristics to use in manipulating people. Here's one example. On the campaign trail, Huckabee told people that Romney did not execute any criminals. But that's a half-truth. MA doesn't have the death penalty, which Huck knew!!

    Here's another quick example. Huckabee went around telling everyone how many times he cut taxes in Arkansas, to paint himself as a tax-cutter. But that's another half-truth. The other half is that Huckabee raised taxes much more than he cut them. So, therefore, the number of times that he cut taxes is irrelevant. But he knew that the average person would be impressed hearing "I cut taxes 87 times."

  3. Yes, good post.

    When a person is convicted of violent crimes, they ought to serve their sentence and be kept away from the public.

  4. I seems like it would do a lot more good than harm if Huckabee just said, "You know, I was young and a little foolish. I should not have . . .)" I wonder how much favor that would win with voters if any politician admitted that sometimes they make mistakes.

  5. Diane, I really, really, wish you would address the other numerous defenses of Gov. Huckabee's actions. Of course Huckabee's own defense is going to be self-serving, but why do other wise commentators come to a different conclusion than yours?

    Notice WSB radio talk show host Allen Hunt:,_huckabee

    And, American Daily Review:

    And, the NYDailyNews:

    And, the L.A. Times, and The Dallas Morning News, many others too numerous to mention.

    And, I suspect Michael Gerson will also have a strong defense of Huckabee in his Wed. WAPO OP-ED.