Even in the no-holds-barred world of Texas politics, the indictment of Gov. Rick Perry last week was a low blow. A grand jury in Austin, a Democratic Party hotbed, indicted Perry, a Republican with presidential aspirations, on two felony counts for allegedly abusing his power. His offense? Threatening to veto funding for the county district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, resigned. But the Texas governor has the legal authority to veto spending, which makes the dispute between Perry and Lehmberg essentially a political one. And the courts are the wrong place to settle political scores.
The Public Integrity Unit has long been a thorn in Texas Republicans’ side, having brought criminal charges against then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (prosecutors ultimately abandoned the case) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (his convictions were overturned on appeal). More recently, it spent more than a year probing grant-making decisions by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, an agency that has been championed by Perry.
Lehmberg, meanwhile, had worked at the Travis County district attorney’s office for 32 years before voters elected her to the top job there in 2008 and 2012. In 2013, county sheriff’s deputies pulled her over on suspicion of drunk driving, and videos from the scene and the jail captured her intoxicated belligerence as she was arrested and booked. Although she quickly pleaded guilty to the charge, Republicans said her behavior showed she was unfit to oversee the Public Integrity Unit.
There seems to be little dispute over what happened next. Eager to oust Lehmberg, Perry zeroed out the Public Integrity Unit from the 2013-14 budget, but offered to restore the funding if she stepped down. Had Lehmberg done so, Perry would have been able to name a replacement, presumably a Republican, to run the office until the general election this November. Lehmberg refused.
This is hardball politics, and it’s ugly to see a governor try to superimpose his will over the local voters’. But it’s not illegal. (Nor, by the way, did the budget cut end the unit’s work.) And yet the complaint that led to Perry’s indictment at the hands of a special prosecutor and a Travis County grand jury accused him of nothing else.
The courts certainly have a role to play in stopping officials from taking steps that are beyond the bounds of statute or the Constitution. They do not, however, belong in the middle of a fight between politicians over policy or power. If lawmakers can’t muster the votes to overturn a spending veto or repeal a law they don’t like, they shouldn’t run to the judicial branch for help. That’s just as true for Washington Republicans aggravated by the continuation of Obamacare as it is for Austin Democrats aggrieved by the governing style of Rick Perry. They should find a way to win either the debate or more elections.
Even in the culture of Texas politics, the indictment of Gov. Rick Perry was a low blow
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