While the lurid details of the case and the Massachusetts connection make Willie Horton comparsions inevitable, and while Mitt Romney’s characterstic dodges in response to this horrible event deserve criticism, some perspective is in order. This differs from Willie Horton in some significant ways.
First, the weekend furlough program was a deliberate policy which Michael Dukakis defended and believed should apply to violent criminals. Dukakis vetoed a bill that would have kept offenders like Horton behind bars. This case pertains to a single decision by one judge Romney appointed, a decision that Romney could not have reasonably forseen. Kathe Tuttman did not have a reputation as someone who was soft on crime or indifferent to victims at the time of her appointment. Tuttman was a respected prosecutor who received the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance Criminal Justice Award for Outstanding Victim Advocacy the year before her appointment.
Second, Romney did not have a free hand to nominate whomever he wanted to Massachusetts judgeships. The judges are picked out of pool of potential nominees recommended by a judical nominations commission. All judicial nominees have to then be confirmed by an independently elected executive council. During Romney’s time in office, all eight elected governor’s councilors were Democrats, most of them liberals. The only Republican on the council was his own lieutenant governor, who was an ex officio member.
I’ve criticized Romney and his partisans for gilding the lily on conservative judicial appointments (among many other things). But Romney followed the path of nominating some liberal judges in order to win confirmation of some conservative judges, just as his immediate three Republican predecessors had. Rudy Giuliani also appointed many liberal judges under similar political conditions and procedural constraints.
None of this changes the politics of the situation, which Romney seems hellbent on making worse. But dispassionate observers should recognize that Romney’s responsibility for what happened is fairly limited.
UPDATE: A reader suggests I am missing the affirmative action angle in this case, writing, “This is not [Romney’s] Willie Horton; this is his Harriet Miers.” Fair enough. Romney was clearly more interested in having a good track record of appointing women to the bench than he was in appointing conservatives. Republicans have been known to succumb to this temptation before (see O’Connor, Sandra Day and Marshall, Margaret).
Yet even here I’d add a caveat: However inexplicable her decision to let this murderer go free, Tuttman was qualified and I’m not aware of any evidence as of 2006 that she was unduly lenient.
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