Imagine that you are an employee working in the food mart of the corner gas station. One night, you’re arrested for driving under the influence. You show up for work the next day, and your employer fires you for getting arrested.
Your due process rights for the drunken driving charge are limited to the criminal charge, not to whether or not your employer can fire you for getting arrested. People can disagree about the fairness of the law, but that’s the law.
Now, imagine that you are a state senator and that you have been charged, indicted, arrested and/or convicted of crimes that relate directly to your job as a legislator. Can you be “fired” by the Senate? Yes.
Our state constitution says, “Each house shall judge the qualifications and elections of its Members and, by roll call vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership concurring, may expel a Member.”
After three state senators [Democrats Ron Calderon, Rod Wright and Leland Yee], have, in 2014, been either charged, indicted, arrested, tried and/or convicted of felonies directly associated with the performance of their official duties, the question arises as to the proper reaction of the state Senate itself. To answer that, let’s look at another political scandal, not so long ago.
In 2000, then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush [a Republican] resigned his statewide constitutional office, following hearings by the [Democratically controlled] state Assembly, because of charges that he had misdirected millions of dollars of insurance settlement funds meant to compensate victims of the Northridge Earthquake into funds that assisted his political ambitions.
Quackenbush resigned ahead of an all-but-certain impeachment in the Assembly and a trial and conviction in the Senate. My role in all that was to manage the non-partisan Assembly hearings (I represented the Monterey Bay area in the Assembly from 1996 through 2002).
In the case of Quackenbush, there was no call in the Legislature for him to take a paid vacation or to wait until he had been convicted in a court of law and his appeals were exhausted. There was no argument that he had a right to due process in the criminal matters first that would prevent the Legislature from investigating, impeaching or convicting him.
Quackenbush was a constitutional officer, not a state senator, but the analogy is apt. There is no question about whether the state Senate must wait for a conviction and appeals before it can expel a member. There is only the question of whether the state Senate can muster the backbone to expel the three members who have rained disgust and dishonor on the body that voters rely on to make our laws, pass a budget and serve as a check and balance to the extensive powers of the governor.
We have seen a stream of newspaper articles, blogs, editorials, op-ed pieces and general conversation about the three state senators involved in this swirl of unethical and, perhaps, criminal behavior, and what should be done about it. Some argue the weak case that the state senate has done the right thing to suspend them with pay and not take stronger action unless and until they are convicted and sentenced.
Our democracy is strong but it needs the constant trust and confidence of the electorate that their representatives represent the citizenry fairly and honestly.
A paid vacation for three disgraced state senators will not do it. Immediate expulsion will.
Fred Keeley, a liberal Democrat, is the elected Treasurer of Santa Cruz County of Santa. He served in the California State Assembly (1996-2002) during which time he led the Assembly’s hearings into the actions of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.