Bridgegate and the WI “John Doe”: Jumping to Conclusions

Are we innocent until proven guilty? In court, yes.  In the media and court of public opinion– not so much.

Was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie involved with the revenge closing of the lanes of the George Washington Bridge? So far, there has been no conclusive evidence made public to prove he knew what his underlings were up to, and yet most people in New Jersey, Gov. Christie’s own state, who recently reelected him by a wide margin to the governor’s office, believe he was involved and is lying about it. Perhaps jumping to conclusions is to be expected in our cynical political climate, and Christie has displayed moments of political hubris (along with the charm to properly appreciate Pres. Obama and federal aid after Hurricane Sandy), but we all should be more patient and wait for the truth to be revealed.

Democratic NJ Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, speaking no doubt for many Democrats, independents, pundits and at least some Republicans, stated that, according to the NY Times, 

“It strains credibility to say that somebody in as high a position as a deputy chief of staff, somebody in as high a position as the governor’s principal spokesperson, somebody in as high a position as his campaign manager, all of whose names are in these emails, didn’t ever communicate this to the governor.”

Though it may strain credibility, Christie’s guilt cannot be affirmed, lacking clear evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt. What we can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, is that this scandal in his administration is likely to hurt Christie’s political career, but to what extent, of course, no one can say. It might prevent him from winning the Republican nomination for president, should he indeed run as expected, or it may play a part in his losing the presidential election should he become the Republican nominee. But media speculation serves no real purpose beyond provoking Christie’s supporters and creating a partisan backlash.

Bridge to Nowhere
Bridge to Nowhere by drplokta. Some rights reserved.

But a more reckless leap of judgment, a bridge to nowhere, was the Wall Street Journal’s rather giddy and gloating editorial titled “Wisconsin Political Speech Victory.”  Judge Gregory  Peterson overturned the first “John Doe” judge’s ruling regarding subpoenas issued to conservative political groups accused of illegal coordination with Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election campaign. Judge Peterson ruled, in a sealed opinion apparently leaked to the WSJ, that “political purposes” are defined under Wisconsin campaign law as requiring “express advocacy” for a candidate, and there was, according to the judge, no evidence of express advocacy. Alright. But the WSJ editorial board then spun one judge’s opinion into a rather unsubstantiated allegation:

“The judge’s order vindicates our suspicion that the John Doe probe is a political operation intended to shut up Mr. Walker’s allies as he seeks re-election this year . . . Democrats would love to intimidate and muzzle the local activists who rallied to Mr. Walker’s recall defense. And the subpoenas all but shut down these activists, forcing them to hire lawyers and defend themselves rather than contribute to the political debate in an election year. Beyond 2014, the prosecutors’ goal seems to be raise the cost of participation so the subpoena targets decide to quit politics.”

There is much wild speculation, accusing and fortune-telling in the above bit of editorial analysis, insinuating that the investigation is a Democratic plot to stifle First Amendment rights. Yet let’s recall that the first Milwaukee County “John Doe” investigation did uncover some illegal activity and Gov. Walker was not charged.   And remember that the first judge in the latest “John Doe” had seen enough to let the prosecutors proceed, so the case may not be as legally clear-cut as some conservatives are now claiming. The WSJ ends its editorial by praising Judge Peterson for being “brave enough to read the law”, as if the previous judge, Barbara Kluka, had no knowledge of the law, as if law is all about the mere act of reading rather than a more laborious and subjective interpreting.

My point is that no democratic purpose is served by casting partisan aspersions, no matter which side is doing the casting. Which doesn’t mean that the truth should not be pursued; it means it should be pursued with patience, fairness and political restraint.
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