Editorial: End legislators’ immunity from prosecution

05/18/2014 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 2:19 PM

STATE SENATORS are equal beneficiaries with House members of Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s declaration that the attorney general needs legislators’ permission to investigate legislators for taking bribes and converting government resources or campaign funds to personal use and otherwise profiting from their office. So it was encouraging to see Senate leaders so roundly condemning the order, which quashed the State Grand Jury investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Now they need to act.

Under normal circumstances, with just three weeks left in the session, the only way we could expect legislators to revoke their new immunity is for the House to add the fix to the ethics-reform bill on its calendar. And it needs to do that.

But we can’t count on that.

And these are not normal circumstances.

It is not normal for a judge to quash an investigation by declaring that black is white and cats are dogs. He didn’t actually say that, but it’s every bit as factual as what he did say: that a criminal allegation is not a criminal allegation.

It is difficult to imagine that the Supreme Court will not reverse this order, since it is built on a factual claim that is demonstrably inaccurate. But it was until recently difficult to imagine that such a respected judge would write an order that hangs on his assertion that black is white and cats are dogs and a crime is not a crime.

It was until recently unimaginable that anyone would believe that state law requires the attorney general to say “Mother may I?” to legislators before he investigates them for selling their votes or otherwise profiting from office. In fact, the legislators who wrote the law insist that it does not curtail the attorney general’s constitutional mandate to enforce state law. Even when the violators may be legislators. Even very powerful legislators.

We know that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others and legislators are more equal still, but it was until recently unimaginable that anyone could see written in our code of laws a special protected status for our legislators. Yet that is what a judge just did.

This cannot stand.

Those senators who have spoken out against this conclusion — John Courson, Harvey Peeler, Brad Hutto and Wes Hayes — need to introduce legislation on Tuesday that states very clearly that ethics violations are in fact crimes and that the attorney general can prosecute them.

Those who believe Judge Manning got it wrong should eagerly support this change to clarify that the law says what we always understood it to say. Those who believe Judge Manning got it right should be even more determined to correct such an obvious flaw in our law, a flaw that carves out a special protected status for our legislators, places them above the law, beyond the rules that apply to the rest of us.

It will take extraordinary determination to move this bill through the Senate, for the House to even take it up and to get it to the governor before the Legislature ends its regular session on June 5. But it is possible. And these are extraordinary times. An extraordinary effort is merited. The integrity of our political system, our judicial system and our criminal justice system hangs in the balance.

It has been six days since Circuit Judge Casey Manning granted legislators immunity from prosecution, and our legislators have done nothing. Our legislators have three weeks — nine legislative days — to close the Manning Loophole.

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