Guest Editorials, Opinion

GOP, be honest about election interference

In recent weeks, Congress has stripped a senator of his committee chairmanship pending a bribery investigation, expelled a House member for egregious frauds and fired a staffer for making a sex tape in a committee room — all for the good, given the embarrassment each has brought on the institution. But there are deeper ethics challenges facing Congress, as the case of Representative Elise Stefanik shows.

Stefanik, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, has filed an ethics complaint against a federal judge, Beryl Howell. The judge’s alleged offense? At a dinner held by the Women’s White Collar Defense Association, Howell reportedly said the following: “We are having a very surprising and downright troubling moment in this country when the very importance of facts is dismissed, or ignored.”

Howell, who oversaw a number of cases relating to the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, also spoke about the effect of “big lies” on those who have been sentenced for crimes arising from that day. She quoted a new book by a historian about the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism: “Big lies are springboards for authoritarians.”

Stefanik now wants Howell investigated for misconduct by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She explained her reasoning this way: “Election interference by judges destroys public confidence in the federal judiciary, tears apart the fabric of our Republic, and is illegal. It must end now.”

Rather unintentionally, Stefanik’s complaint perfectly underscored Howell’s concern about facts being dismissed. The fact is: It was judges who prevented illegal election interference by then-President Donald Trump and his associates, some of whom have already pleaded guilty to related crimes. And it was judges — including many appointed by Trump himself — who heard all the evidence presented by the former president’s lawyers and unanimously concluded that the 2020 election had been conducted lawfully.

Stefanik seems to have no quarrel with any of the actual election interferers and certainly not with Trump, whose campaign for she is ardently supporting. Instead, she charged that Howell’s commentary was a “partisan speech” that was “obviously highly inappropriate election interference.”

In trying to redefine election enforcement as election interference, and concern about lies as evidence of partisanship, Stefanik is sowing the very distrust in the judicial system that she claims to be attacking. It’s as if she’s channeling Alice in Wonderland: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.”

Judges should, of course, take pains to avoid the appearance of partisanship, and the court system should hold them accountable. The erosion of public trust in the judiciary undermines faith in the rule of law, including the administration of elections and their results.

But attempting to punish judges for expressing legitimate concern about encroaching authoritarianism is itself a form of authoritarianism. The sooner this and similar efforts are repudiated, the sooner the public can go back to worrying about crooks taking bribes, fraudsters stealing funds and perverts exposing themselves. You know: normal politics.

This editorial first appeared in Bloomberg Opinion. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.