Once in a while -- not every day, but not infrequently -- there's a major story that doesn't fit into the tidy little political boxes that we like to stuff things into. Nothing fits that description better than the surprising decision by the Obama administration Justice Department that it will drop its prosecution of Alaska GOP Sen. Ted Stevens-- even though a jury convicted Stevens, who's been mounting an aggressive appeal -- last fall. So a Democratic administration is coming in and seeking to reverse the felony conviction of a Republican senator carried out by a Republican administration. No wonder the usual suspects seem so muted or confused.
The easiest conclusions aren't necessarily the most logical. I caught a snippet of Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" earlier tonight and he was going on about what a travesty of justice that was committed in convicting Stephens, which on one level is clearly true. The alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the case -- such as keeping information from Stevens' defense team -- was a perversion of legal ethics, which is why Attorney General Eric Holder did what he did. But you could also make a strong case that the Justice Department screw-ups actually denied justice to the American people. There in fact seemed to be a strong prima facie case that Stevens' home was fixed up by a government contractor -- a jury of Stevens' peers believed that -- but the inept and possibly unethical prosecutors pulled a Dennis Green and let him off the hook.
Josh Marshall makes the case -- at least as I interpret it -- that a bad process inadvertently led to a weirdly just outcome, that the misdeeds of Stevens merited losing his Senate seat but maybe not sending an 85-year-old guy to jail:
Stevens is 85 years old. He was tried and convicted. He lost his senate seat and ended his 40+ career in disgrace. Whatever the prosecutors did wrong -- and it seems like they did a lot wrong, which we'll get to in a minute -- that doesn't erase the fact that Stevens got a freebie home renovation from a wealthy contributor whose interests Stevens repeatedly and habitually service in Washington.
In this case, though, the prosecutorial misconduct appears to be of a non-trivial sort. So given his age, the disgrace he's already suffered and the fact that future prosecution may be fatally undermined by the earlier prosecutorial wrongdoing, setting this whole effort aside makes sense.
I think the end conclusion here is that the Justice Department wasn't just wrongfully politicized under the Bush White House, but it was poorly run as well, a crime in its own right. And so when it decided in the eighth year of a two-term administration to prosecute an icon of its own political party, the folks hired by Alberto Gonzales and friends weren't actually up to the task of getting it right. Hopefully. this is just the beginning of an aggressive and not overtly partisan effort to undo some of the injustices of Bush-style "justice." In the arena of public corruption, there's no doubt that the next up should be Don Siegelman, the former Democratic governor of Alabama who for all intents and purposes was a political prisoner in the United States of America.