Perspective On The Libby Commutation genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Silver Spoon

President Bush's commutation of the Scooter Libby prison term has drawn more than its share of attention. I think its safe to say that the move raised suspicion and doubt about the equity of the Bush administration in helping one of their own...especially given this administration’s stingy record of such actions. Well, beyond the initial visceral reactions, we are beginning to see hard data to illuminate just how skewed the commutation may have actually been. The Los Angeles Times has a good article on the subject.

WASHINGTON — In commuting the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, President Bush said that the former vice presidential aide had suffered enough and that the 30-month prison term ordered up by a federal judge was "excessive."

But records show that the Justice Department under the Bush administration frequently has sought sentences that are as long, or longer, in cases similar to Libby's. Three-fourths of the 198 defendants sentenced in federal court last year for obstruction of justice — one of four crimes Libby was found guilty of in March — got some prison time. According to federal data, the average sentence defendants received for that charge alone was 70 months.

Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran who was convicted of lying to a federal agent about buying a machine gun. The veteran had a record of public service — fighting in Vietnam and the Gulf War — and no criminal record. But Justice Department lawyers argued his prison term should stand because it fit within the federal sentencing guidelines.

That Bush chose to make an exception for a political ally is galling to many career Justice Department prosecutors and other legal experts. Federal prosecutors said Tuesday the action would make it harder for them to persuade judges to deliver appropriate sentences.

I can't help but recall the line offered by the late former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards when she spoke at the 1988 Democratic National Convention about George H. W. Bush, the president's father. Richards stated, "Poor George, he can't help it...he was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Separating the Bush family from the notion of privilege would be akin to the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth...it's difficult to accomplish and it would be little more than word semantics.

I mention the Richards speech because it points to the insular quality that has been a mainstay of the current Bush administration...a reminder of the degree to which George Bush surrounds himself with a very small sphere of advisors and the seeming irrelevance of all else. It's as if his title isn't president of the United States, but benevolent dictator...though one would be hard pressed to see him as benevolent (unless, of course, your name is Libby). Draw your own conclusions on the dictator inference.

"We can't find any cases, certainly in the last half century, where the president commuted a sentence before it had even started to be served," said Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney at the Justice Department. "This is really, really unusual."

Said Ellen S. Podgor, a professor at Stetson University law school: "This is a classic case of executive activism as opposed to judicial activism."

The decision to spare Libby also rekindled debate over the federal sentencing guidelines, first enacted in the mid-1980s to ensure that defendants who commit similar crimes receive similar punishment.

Critics of the system, including federal judges, say the rules don't allow for mitigating circumstances in individual cases and can result in overly harsh punishment.

But the Bush administration and the Justice Department have been tough enforcers of and advocates for the guidelines. And they have frequently been critical of federal judges who give lighter sentences.

While many are outraged at the arbitrary nature of the Bush commutation, it should really come as no surprise for a man who enjoyed anointing himself with the moniker of "The Decider"...the man who viewed his reelection as the amassing of "political capital" that he intended to spend.

No doubt that George Bush believes in the expression, "To the winner go the spoils". The problem with this presidency and this president's mindset is that while George Bush is feasting on the bounty he believes came with his "ascension" to the presidency; he's arguably done more to spoil the integrity of the office than any president since Richard Nixon.

Prior to the 2000 election, George Bush traveled the country telling voters he would restore honor and integrity to the office of the president. Perhaps we simply misunderstood Mr. Bush...maybe he was speaking about the presidency that would follow a brief interlude...that period of time when America took a hiatus from our two plus centuries old tradition of a three branch government...a period marked by terror...a period some might feel justified to call the Bush administration's reign of terror.

Daniel DiRito | July 4, 2007 | 9:22 AM
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