In the late 1970s, Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton promised to pardon the son of a political ally who had been convicted of the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. A firestorm of protest erupted, embroiling the Democratic governor in controversy that transcended political affiliation.
In an attempt to calm the political storm, Governor Blanton appointed a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to make a recommendation regarding his decision to pardon the convicted man.
I was asked to serve on the committee, which included a forensic psychiatrist, a Vanderbilt law professor, a couple of state senators, persons experienced with the pardon and parole system, a newspaper publisher, state representatives, and a couple of business people.
After thorough review of the case and hearing from relevant witnesses, the committee recommended against the pardon. We unanimously agreed that he did not meet the standard guidelines and that the proposed pardon was clearly a political payoff.
We felt that granting a unilateral pardon for obvious political payback subverted the criminal justice system and undermined confidence in its fairness.
Contrary to his promise to the committee, the governor pardoned the man along with more than fifty others during his last week in office.
Governor-Elect Lamar Alexander was sworn in three days prior to the official inauguration in order to prevent more such pardons.
Republican Alexander’s early swearing in was made possible by the U.S. attorney representing the Department of Justice, the lieutenant governor and state Speaker of the House, both Democrats.
After leaving office, Governor Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses, and he served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary.
Memory of this episode from forty years ago resurfaced with the news of President Trump granting pardons and/or clemency to duly tried-and-convicted, high-profile, white-collar criminals.
As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The recent actions by President Trump clearly rhymes with the Blanton experience. Both reflect the gross inequities within the criminal justice system and the abuse of power for purely political purposes.
The scales of justice are demonstrably weighted in favor of the economically and politically privileged. It’s more about how much money you have, the color of your skin, and who you know than what you do that determines your fate in the current system.
A glaring difference between the Blanton case and the current president’s actions is public response.
Forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee together demanded action from their political leaders on behalf of fundamental justice. Now, protest is largely muted and clearly partisan.
Has advocacy for simple fairness and equity become merely a politically partisan issue?
I wonder if Senator Lamar Alexander remembers that he was inaugurated governor three days early because leaders of the opposing political party put justice above party?
Are corruption and cronyism now acceptable, if it is done by OUR party?
Have we now normalized a criminal injustice system?
Is political party affiliation now the final arbiter of what is right?
Have we become a nation “where nobody is above the law,” EXCEPT the economically secure, politically connected, and racially privileged?
Is the Pledge of Allegiance a meaningless ritual for opening sports and civic events? What about “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL”?
The prophet Micah lived in a time when justice was weighted against the poor, and religious leaders were complicit with the prevailing injustice. Micah cautioned that such injustice has disastrous consequences and warned of impending national collapse.
But the prophet’s warning included God’s alternative:
[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8)
And this word from the Psalmist merits our attention:
“Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” (106:3 NIV)
May our actions rhyme with the words of the Prophet and the Psalmist, more than with our partisan politics.