Attorney General JB. Van Hollen is making headlines these days in the state of Wisconsin. He’s pushed the State Supreme Court to rule on voter ID in hopes that the law will be in place for the November election, and he’s openly disagreed with the Government Accountability Board. On Thursday, Van Hollen released a statement concerning a recently filed motion that asked an appeals court to allow Act 10 to remain in effect while it is under review.
“We believe Act 10 is constitutional, and we’ll ultimately prevail in defense of those parts declared unlawful. It’s important a stay is granted to avoid confusion while the appellate process moves forward,” said Van Hollen in the statement.
Picking a side and making statements in support of that position is Van Hollen’s job; he’s Attorney General. And that’s what attorneys general do — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.
This summer I had the good fortune to study abroad in Norway for eight weeks. I was there on July 22, the one year anniversary of the bombings and shootings committed by one man that left 77 dead.
Throughout the day of July 22, I tuned in to media coverage of the anniversary, and one interview in particular has stuck with me. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave a press conference in which he was asked how he would like to see the courts rule in the perpetrator’s trial, which was still going on at the time. His response was simple — he just said, “I can’t answer that kind of question.”
Stoltenberg qualified his response by saying that as head of the executive branch, it wasn’t his place to make statements regarding what he believes to be the correct course of action for a separate branch.
I immediately thought, “Well damn. No American politician today would have high enough standards to do that.”
And so we come back to Van Hollen. Yes, it’s his job to make statements because he is, after all, the lawyer representing the state. What he is doing is in no way corrupt or abhorrent. But he is also part of the executive branch, and no branch should have the power to dole out morality or correctness on another.
Referring to the temporary stay on voter ID while it was under consideration in the courts, Van Hollen told The Badger Herald, “While I respect the judicial process and the right to challenge a law in court, it is time for our Supreme Court to take control of these cases.” Translation: I respect the role of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but they’re not doing the job I think they should do. Statements like these are all too common in cross-branch criticisms; an official uses the appearance of just doing his or her job as a pretense for instructing another branch on what is “right.”
This contributes to the cesspool of reasons for viewing our political system as futile. If it’s acceptable for someone who specializes in one branch of government to tell someone in a different branch what to do, then we obviously don’t understand the importance of respecting the knowledge of others. I wouldn’t tell my doctor how to prescribe antibiotics, and I wouldn’t tell my lawyer how to write a brief. I’d STFU and let them do their job.
It’s easy to understand, then, why a culture that considers specialists and officials to be negligible would view a court striking down part of a certain law as repulsive — or why thousands would erupt in protest over that same law. To us, it doesn’t matter if an economist or tenured political science professor makes a statement that’s overwhelmingly supported by evidence — if we don’t agree with someone, they must be wrong. I suppose that’s why Ayn Rand’s objectivism has such a following in American culture.
While it may be in his job description, Van Hollen ought to keep his moralizing of other branches to himself.
Reginald Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in legal studies and Scandianvian studies.