Today I wanted to comment on an unfortunate and irresponsible article by Paul Rolly, an opinion columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune that I normally enjoy reading. Rolly’s article is titled, “The Two Faces of Judge Dee Benson” and compares Judge Benson, a former United States Attorney for the District of Utah and current Federal District Court judge of 21 years to Mitt Romney (and his flip-flopping) based almost exclusively on Judge Benson’s differential sentencing in two recent cases.
What’s the problem, you ask? Well, in the game of electoral politics, flip-flopping is opportunism; in the world of judicial sentencing, it’s potentially impeachable misconduct.
The first case used by Rolly is the case of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, who Judge Benson sentenced to two years in federal prison for sabotaging an oil lease auction by placing fraudulent bids and subsequently open urged his supporters to disobey the law. The second was the case of Matthew Dahl, the former director of This is the Place Heritage Park, who embezzled $321,000 from the park and who Judge Benson sentenced to six months in prison.
Here’s a relevant snippet from the article:
When Jon Huntsman still was in the Republican presidential race, his campaign ran a TV ad featuring a wind-up toy monkey that did back flips to dramatize Mitt Romney’s notorious flip-flopping on major issues.
That flip-flopping monkey could have a cousin named Judge Dee Benson.
Benson, a U.S. District judge for Utah, caught my attention once again this week when he sentenced former This Is the Place Heritage Park Director Matthew Dahl to six months in prison for stealing $321,000 in park funds. Prosecutors had recommended up to 33 months in prison, but Benson noted Dahl, who comes from a strong Republican, LDS family, was a first-time offender convicted of a nonviolent crime.
Bogus oil and gas lease bidder Tim DeChristopher, who does not come from a strong Republican, LDS family and who, instead, became a champion of the liberals, was also a first-time offender convicted of a nonviolent crime. But Benson gave him two years in federal prison because he kept talking publicly about his environmental cause while he was awaiting sentencing.
I’ll admit that I don’t know many of the details of these cases, but neither (I suspect) does Rolly. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that no one does aside from those actively involved in the prosecution and the defense. But his limited perspective on things didn’t stop Rolly from putting out his story, which is that Judge Benson discriminates favorably in sentencing when the convicted offender is white, Republican, and/or LDS, and discriminates unfavorably in sentencing when the convicted offender is a racial minority, a Democrat, and/or is not a member of the LDS Church.
Now, I don’t like to see white collar criminals get off easy simply because they show up to court in a nice suit with great looking family in tow. But I don’t know the extent to which the circumstances of Dahl’s case counseled against imposing a harsh sentence. I’ve already given my thoughts on the DeChristopher sentence, which I view as a somewhat harsh, but warranted.
I strongly suspect that if the sentences were reversed — that is, if DeChristopher got probation while Dahl was given, say, 4 years — we wouldn’t be hearing a peep from Rolly about flip-flopping. Why? Because I’m sure that Rolly would then assume that the differing sentences were reasonable, given what he sees as the meaningful distinctions between the two cases.
But, when the sentences run contrary to his own sensibilities, Rolly dashes off an irresponsible hit piece alleging judicial misconduct — an impulsive, irresponsible strategy that would do Newt Gingrich proud.
All Rolly’s piece does is contribute to an attribute of distrust and suspicion regarding the American judicial system. Judges are placed in the very difficult position of determining the rights and fates of the individuals who appear before them. They are presented with complex arguments carefully drafted by smart, intelligent, motivated, and persuasive advocates on both sides of the case. In many cases, one, or both, parties who appear before them aren’t telling them the truth. They are bound by countless complicated legal rules, and they are forced to become experts on all of them, based on the substance of the case at hand. Sometimes there are relevant facts they can’t consider in making their rulings. Other times they are forced to base their rulings on a fact that seem entirely irrelevant to the case at hand. And half the people who appear before them are guaranteed to lose every time.
In the vast majority of cases, our judges get it right. But if they ever miss one (which, I understand, does have major effects on the person whose rights are negatively affected — and I can’t say whether Judge Benson missed one in the Dahl case) we’re often not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but immediately attribute the worst motives to them, accusing them of misconduct, fraud, or even treason. And then we wonder at the fact that neither side in a political debate trusts the judiciary, and we shake our heads in amazement when the Utah legislature denies a qualified, distinguished, near-universally admired judge a place on our appellate courts because they disagreed with one of his rulings.
It’s a good thing that our judges are protected from political retribution for their sentences, because, if they weren’t, retribution would, it seems, be all too quick in coming. Judge Benson is a distinguished judge who has served this state well in multiple capacities. I suspect he would be the first to admit that he’s probably gotten a few decisions wrong in his 21 years. But that doesn’t mean he sentences on race, religion, or political affiliation. And it’s unfortunate that Rolly believes it’s OK to claim that he does.