Everyone seems upset that California Sens. Roderick Wright and Ron Calderon are taking paid leaves of absences.
I get it. Both politicians have been, or have been accused of, behaving badly. A jury convicted Wright of eight felonies, including fraud and perjury, stemming from the fact that he did not live in his district when he ran for Senate, something that is required under the state constitution.
We can argue about the wisdom of the requirement. However, that is exactly what it is, a requirement that all candidates must abide by. More importantly, he lied about it.
A different kind of jury, a grand jury, indicted Calderon on 24 counts of bribery, money laundering, and tax fraud, things we don’t want our representatives to do.
Is Calderon innocent until proven guilty? Absolutely. Does that mean that he should remain in his position as a public servant? Absolutely not, for at least two reasons.
First, Calderon is a political representative. These accusations go to the heart of his ability to function in that capacity. And let’s talk specific about those accusations for a moment. They are pretty damning.
Calderon is accused of taking or attempting to take $100,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as employees of a Hollywood studio and a Long Beach hospital official, Michael Drobot. Drobot has pleaded guilty to bribing Calderon.
Essentially Calderon has been accused of gross abuse of his office. Trust and appearances matter in politics, and both indicate that Calderon should no longer be a member of the Legislature.
Second, Calderon already has been ousted; he is just still getting paid. His constituents are representative-less. Something smells rotten about this setup.
For the vast majority of us, if we’re convicted of felonies – as is the case with Sen. Wright – or indicted for misconduct involving our jobs – here’s looking at you, Sen. Calderon – we likely would not remain employed.
If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs and be placed on leave, that may or may not be paid leave. It feels like Wright and Calderon are getting sweetheart deals. To add insult to injury, we’re paying for those deals.
So let’s summarize. Wright and Calderon should no longer be in the Legislature. In fact, neither of them is serving as a representative because they are both on “leave.” But for some reason, I think maybe that’s OK? Well, yes and no.
First, no, this is not OK. There is a straightforward solution here. Both senators should resign. Actually, allow me to rephrase. Both senators should have resigned already. The fact that these two individuals remain in office on our dime is somewhere between annoying and shameful.
Even if the end of the line for both of these senators is not inevitable, although it certainly seems to be, they should put their constituents before themselves and exit stage left.
Calderon is in the last year of his term. He will do no work for his constituents, and they will pay for that, monetarily and politically, although one could argue that a Senate in which Ron Calderon fails to work is better than one in which he does.
Wright has three years left in office. But he already has been found guilty by a jury. It is time to let the governor call a costly special election.
But second, yes, this is how things should work. The Senate does not have the power to deny these elected officials their salaries unless they are expelled by a two-thirds vote of that legislative body. And maybe that is at it should be.
When I teach cases in which sympathetic plaintiffs lose in court, or bad actors win, my students often are left feeling frustrated. I can hear them saying, if justice were to be done, surely the result should have been different, right?
Maybe not. There is a legal adage that bad facts can lead to bad law. Courts often elucidate rules that apply not only to the parties before them, but to all parties that will or could come before them. In order to guard against bad facts making bad law, seemingly evil people sometimes prevail, or vulnerable victims lose in the court system.
Decisions that twist the law to punish bad actors or stretch it to aid victims could create a bad precedent for decades to come.
Similarly, senators sometimes get to keep their paychecks because creating a rule in which the Senate has the power to deny their elected colleagues their pay could lead to abuse.
Imagine a scenario in which an elected representative believes her colleagues are misbehaving. Perhaps she thinks they are too attuned to the needs of large contributors or lobbyists and deaf to the needs of their constituents.
Perhaps she thinks her colleagues vote based on political expediency, not the public good. Perhaps the Senate leadership, tired of being her punching bag, convinces a prosecutor to investigate this representative. Should the leadership be able to deny her pay?
Maybe these scenarios seem outlandish, but felony convictions and indictments of senators are (luckily) not something we see everyday either.
Maybe we shouldn’t let bad facts make bad law.
Jessica A. Levinson is an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles, where she teaches election law; money, politics and the Supreme Court; and a campaign finance seminar. She is vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu. Follow her on Twitter @LevinsonJessica.