April 1, 2006

Demanding Accountability For Dean Johnson

The controversy over Dean Johnson's lies to a group of pastors regarding assurances he supposedly received from state Supreme Court justices on how they would rule on gender-neutral marriage has escalated, thanks to two seperate requests for ethics investigations. A former judicial candidate and court critic has joined a Republican state representative in demanding an accounting for either judicial malfeasance or deliberate deception on the part of the Minnesota Senate majority leader:

A legislator and a longtime critic of the judicial system filed separate ethics complaints Friday asking a board to determine whether several state Supreme Court justices held improper conversations about Minnesota marriage law with Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said he discussed the law with justices but they offered him no assurances on how they might rule if it were challenged. The justices have denied talking to him about the law.

In his complaint, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, asked, "Who is telling the truth?"

Former judicial candidate Greg Wersal, a Golden Valley attorney, also filed a complaint calling for an inquiry by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards.

Johnson made headlines in Minnesota when tapes of a meeting he held with pastors about Johnson's opposition for a referendum on marriage got released to the public. The tapes, clandestinely made by one of the attendees, revealed that Johnson had claimed to have had conversations with four of the justices, and that they had assured him that they would not overturn the statute in Minnesota passed recently that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This assurance, if true, would mean that the constitutional amendment reinforcing the statute was unnecessary. It would also represent an unconscionable breach of judicial ethics, as jurists cannot make such assurances, and certainly not in secret to politicians while considering legislation germane to the point.

Johnson at first denied he had said it, and then excoriated the minister for his low ethics in secretly taping the conversation. (He had nothing to say about the ethics of lying to ministers about fantasy conversations.) He then retreated somewhat from the taped statements, saying that he had spoken informally to one Supreme Court justice, who had said something casual that led him to believe that the court would not take up the issue. However, the Chief Justice, Russell Anderson, had become so irate over the suggestion that his court would corrupt itself in such a manner that he interrupted his family vacation to interrogate current and former members of the court, releasing a statement that stopped just short of calling Dean Johnson an outright liar.

After a couple of days with that simmering, Johnson finally apologized, but the incident had already done its damage. His apology never cleared up whether he had dropped his assertion that any justice had ever discussed the marriage law with him in such a manner, and now that lack of clarity has left the door open for this ethics investigation. The entire fiasco makes it much more likely that the referendum will appear on the ballot eventually as the opposition has lost all credibility to deny the voters a shot at deciding the issue directly. If that happens, recent electoral history has shown that it will pull conservatives to the polling stations in large numbers, threatening the thin edge of power that the DFL holds in the upper chamber and the electoral momentum they gained in 2004.

This, of course, is the real reason Johnson wanted to keep the question off the ballot. Now he has ironically made it more likely that the DFL will have to face an energized conservative base thanks to his lack of honesty and his besmirching of the character of the Supreme Court justices. One wonders when the DFL might think about replacing him with a leader who isn't a proven prevaricator.


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