Monday, July 12, 2010

Judges get paid to keep their tempers

Voting for judges can be an exercise in guesswork, especially in those infrequent contested elections. Ramsey County has a rare open judicial slot for the District Court bench this fall; there are nine candidates vying for the spot.

Judging is hard work, harder than advocating for one's client. It takes intelligence, patience, compassion, empathy, and toughness. Judicial temperament is a vital characteristic for the job.

It is ordinarily difficult for the public to make much of an assessment of judicial temperament. But not always.

Consider Ramsey County judicial candidate Ed Matthews. Mr. Matthews is one of the nine candidates who are seeking retiring Judge Michael Monahan's open seat. His website shows him to be smart, savvy, and having support from members of the bench and bar. He works at a large and established firm.

Ed Matthews is probably unfamiliar to you unless you were following the events outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul two years ago very closely.

Mr. Matthews was the man who, during the Republican National Convention, grabbed a mask from a peaceful protester and stood nearby as the protester was arrested. He had seen that the mask was made out of one of his campaign signs (the back of the mask; the front was an enlarged picture of John McCain), and felt he could “take it back.” Video of the arrest following the confrontation can be viewed here and here.

Jeff Grubler, the man who was wearing a mask depicting John McCain, described the events leading up to his arrest:
"At about 5:30pm on Thursday, September 5th, my friend and I were at Rice Park in St. Paul performing skits and songs entitled 'Insane in the McCain-Brain' and 'Bomb Iran' while wearing Bush and McCain masks. Ed Matthews, along with a tall man with a potbelly (also a delegate), came at me from behind and started pushing and grabbing for my mask. Matthews was yelling, 'That's my sign,' and I yelled back, 'This is my mask,' and 'Don't touch me.' Ed Matthews was finally able to wrench the mask out of my hands and I responded by pulling his RNC credentials off his neck. Ed Matthews then screamed, 'Give me my credentials,' and I yelled, 'Give me my mask.' At that point the big guy with the potbelly and another man (who did not identify himself as Capital Police) grabbed me and began yelling, 'He stole a delegate's credentials.' I struggled with the two men until I was thrown to the ground by a uniformed officer who cuffed me while keeping his knee on the back of my neck. A crowd made up mostly of Republican delegates began yelling at the police (on my behalf), 'He did nothing wrong,' and 'It was the other guy who started it.' Yet I was taken into custody and Ed Matthews was whisked into the Xcel Center with my mask."
Mr. Grubler was never charged with anything and was released after about an hour. Mr. Matthews went on to lose to Betty McCollum in the fall election. About the incident, he recently said:
"The dancer had made his mask with one of my yard signs. I asked for my sign back. He refused, grabbed my convention credentials which were hanging around my neck and tried to tackle me. The peace officers intervened and arrested him. I gave a statement to a peace officer and went into the convention. I declined to press charges for theft or assault."
The actual confrontation isn't in the video linked to above (apparently Jon Voigt walked by at that moment and all attention turned to him), but the bystanders in the video give their accounts as to what happened. Listen to the comments of the two Oklahoma delegates in the later of the two video clips above ("The guy who started the fight's just standing there" and "The guy who instigated the whole thing - no - he's free. He's back inside"). Take a look; judge for yourself.

Does any of this matter in a judicial election? We all lose our tempers. The convention was a tense time in St. Paul. Mr. Matthews thought that his political sign had been stolen. Mr. Grubler was engaged in political theater and has admitted he tried to take Mr. Matthews' credentials. Mr. Matthews was running for Congress at the time, not a seat on the bench, and we appreciate a little more vinegar in our legislators than in our judges.

But we expect more from our judges, and that is the office Mr. Matthews claims he is qualified to hold. We expect our judges to keep their cool under very difficult circumstances. We require them to respect the rights of even those whose politics they may not like or agree with.

By eyewitness accounts, Mr. Matthews instigated a physical confrontation with a peaceful protester and then stood by smirking as the protester was arrested. Mr. Grubler's actions - dancing in a public square making a political point - is the essence of what First Amendment freedoms cover.

Since the sign was undoubtedly paid for by Mr. Matthews’ campaign committee, and not Matthews himself, and since Matthews could only guess at how the protester got it, Matthews’ claim that it was “his” sign to take isn’t correct. (What, he recognized it as the one that had been on his front yard?) The mask was also an obvious parody, clearly 1st Amendment stuff.

Even if it was Matthews’ campaign sign, it’s bad form for a candidate for any position to behave like common brawler in a public street.

Using his pinstripe suit and delegate credentials to avoid arrest and reclaim "his" sign while Mr. Gruber is hauled off displays something about Mr. Matthews' outlook on which freedoms are more important.

Post title from Carr, A Judge's Guide to Protecting Your Reputation, The Journal of the Section of Litigation, American Bar Association, Vol 36 No. 3, Spring 2010, 26, 30.

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