On Tuesday, former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. Despite the best efforts of GOP operatives to minimize Mr. Libby's criminal conduct, there is no remaining doubt whatsoever that Dick Cheney's former righthand man broke the law by lying to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Likewise, despite every attempt to smear and diminish her service, it was firmly established through declassified documents, Ms. Plame's testimony under oath before Congress, and the statements of CIA chief General Michael Hayden, that she was a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.
As part of the sentencing procedure, presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton was asked to take into account dozens of testimonial letters lauding Libby's service to his country from a pantheon of political luminaries ranging from Henry Kissinger to General Peter Pace to Mary Matalin and James Carville. Despite these written entreaties, Judge Walton - an appointee of President George W. Bush - went beyond the probation board's recommendation of a 21-month jail term, and imposed a sentence of two and half years. As MSNBC reported:
Walton, his voice rising, told Libby’s legal team that the CIA believed disclosure was a serious matter, the Justice Department opened an investigation, Libby lied to investigators “and you seem to be saying” none of that should apply at sentencing.
Days earlier, across the country in Los Angeles, hotel heiress Paris Hilton was sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating probation. As in the Libby case, Ms. Hilton's supporters - and her mother - reacted with outrage:
When a reporter asked what she thought of the judge’s decision, a visibly angry Kathy Hilton responded: “What do you think? This is pathetic and disgusting, a waste of taxpayer money with all this nonsense. This is a joke.”
Yesterday, after serving only 3 days in jail, Ms. Hilton was released to house arrest at the order of Sheriff Lee Baca, apparently because of an unspecified medical condition. While she was fitted with an ankle bracelet and returned home, house arrest had been specifically denied by the sentencing judge as an alternative, and today, the former star of The Simple Life was ordered back to lock-up. No matter the outcome, however, charges of "celebrity justice" - and even racial favoritism - had already begun flying.
Although both the Libby and Hilton cases are high profile, the underlying legal issues couldn't be further apart. The relative importance of obstructing a federal investigation versus that of probation violation by a superfluous do-nothing, however, is not what matters. What is key here, is the belief by certain people and their backers that the law does not apply to them, and that they should not be expected to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is also key is that, as the U.S. Attorney scandal has shown, a significant number of these same people are in positions of power.
For all the flaws of the American judicial system, by and large, it works in good faith to ensure that the rule of law is applied. There are issues of bias, corruption, incompetence and strained resources, but in the main, courts in the United States are some of the fairest in the world. It is our ability as citizens to trust in those courts that has enabled our society to live free from the fear of arbitrary prosecution, selective imprisonment and a lack of due process.
For those reasons, despite the protests of paid fools like Bill Kristol, it is vital that Scooter Libby not be pardoned by the president, and that he serve the time to which he has been sentenced. (And, to a lesser degree, that Paris Hilton was returned to jail.) Without the assurance that the rule of law is that to which we, as fallible human beings, at least strive, the United States is no better than a banana republic.
To witness the consequences of a thoroughly compromised judicial system, one need look no further than Nicaragua, where the wealthy and connected have little fear of legal punishment, and people like American publisher Eric Volz can be thoroughly railroaded. Mr. Volz is an entrepreneur working in Nicaragua who was recently sentenced to 30 years in jail for the murder of an ex-girlfriend, despite the fact that there is no physical evidence tying him to the scene, there are more than 10 witnesses who can place him over two hours away at the time of the crime, and reams of documentary evidence supporting his defense. The judge in the case simply dismissed the testimony and evidence supplied by Volz's lawyers, and released several other suspects without follow-up - much as their supporters would like to have happen for Mr. Libby and Ms. Hilton.
So the next time you hear someone decrying the "miscarriage of justice" that will see Scooter Libby imprisoned - or you see someone in a "Free Paris" t-shirt - pause and reflect for a moment on whether such outrage might be better directed to supporting someone who really has been railroaded by a kangaroo court. Scooter Libby and Paris Hilton should get everything they deserve. So should Eric Volz.
If you would like to add your voice to those calling for President Bush to promise that he will not pardon Scooter Libby, Act for Change has a petition here.
For an overview of the Eric Volz case, watch the video below. For more in-depth information, and to help Eric's fight for justice, visit Friends of Eric Volz.