Power Grab, Wall Street Journal editorial

Wall Street Journal
April 14, 1988

REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)

The election called by the people was only a month away, ballots had been printed and candidates were campaigning.

Suddenly a court canceled the election, saying it no longer served a useful purpose. Americans know such banana-republic tactics are common abroad. The above events, however, occurred this week in Arizona. They highlight an antidemocratic trend in U.S. politics.

The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday canceled a scheduled May 17 recall election for governor because its target, Republican Evan Mecham, had just been removed from office by the legislature. The court’s decision allows Rose Mofford, the former secretary of state who replaced Mr. Mecham during the impeachment proceedings, to stay in office until 1991 without ever facing the voters.

The Arizona Republic, which helped lead the campaign to oust Mr. Mecham, editorialized that “there is no power of government or constitutional authority for canceling an election that has been called for directly by the people.

The court we fear usurped the rights of the people. GOP Senator John McCain, who called for Mr. Mecham to resign in favor of Mrs. Mofford months ago says, “I believe their decision was a political one.” What we are seeing in Arizona is the logical and unfortunate consequence of a recent political ethic that cares only about outcomes, an ethic that is causing a decline in respect for democratic processes. For certainly Arizona is not unique.

In 1983, after California voters rejected by two-to-one margins plans that would have gerrymandered their voting districts, some 600,000 voters signed petitions to put a “good government” redistricting plan on the ballot. The state Supreme Court, led by then Chief Justice Rose Bird, threw it off the ballot and permitted almost identical gerrymanders to become law. Finally in 1986, voters in turn threw her and two of her colleagues off the court.

The politics of outcomes is being learned by the young as well. The editors of the prestigious Yale Law Journal recently voted on an annual banquet speaker. The first vote produced Richard Nixon. The top editors didn’t like that. A second vote produced former Yale Law professor Robert Bork, a bad outcome. The editors canceled the banquet speaker.

The gerrymandering of the U.S. House of Representatives helps perpetuate one-party outcomes in that body. A President who won two landslide victories has seen one appointee of his after another pilloried and brought to heel on charges they engaged in conduct that is perfectly legal for a member of Congress. Others such as Ray Donovan and James Beggs were cleared by the courts of charges against them. All this has had very little to do with ethical piety and much to do with thwarting the uncongenial politics of a sitting President.

Measured by outcomes, much of this campaign has succeeded.

So we’re not surprised that Arizona’s political elite now is in the business of throwing out elections and creating a “governor” for three years. And we’re not surprised that for all the national coverage of the Mecham affair, it never dug deeper than the melodrama of the Mecham impeachment outcome, never tried to discover the reasons that a third of the electorate continued to support such an unlikely leader. We suspect the underlying politics of modern Arizona are exceedingly interesting, but the affair was represented to the country as a rolling circus. The outcome — removing Evan Mecham — was accomplished, and under an increasingly popular American political ethic, not much else matters.