20 October 2009

The Limits of Partisan Immunity?

Leaders of the New York State Democratic party, including both U.S. Senators, are pressuring state senator Hiram Monserrate to resign following his conviction on a misdemeanor assault charge. The conviction does not automatically cost him his seat, and he is expected to receive a light sentence because the crime is officially his first offense. But the incident that led to the trial was a high-profile one which, despite his girlfriend's recanting of her charges against him, gives the senator the image of a batterer of women. Here we may discover the limits of the partisan immunity principle. In practice, partisan immunity protects a legally embattled politician from losing his seat by accusing his accusers of persecuting rather than prosecuting the politician for partisan motives. Both major parties invoke the principle without citing it as one, defenders of Dick Cheney accusing Democrats of partisan persecution, on one hand, and defenders of Rep. Rangel accusing Republicans of the same thing. Monserrate is in a different position because he's been convicted in a criminal court. At the same time, Democrats are probably calculating the actual advantage to the enemy of Monserrate's unrepentant persistence in office, compared to the alleged advantage one party often accuses the other of seeking. Worse yet, Monserrate most likely has few friends among New York Democrats. He collaborated with another Hispanic senator in a power play earlier this year that temporarily threw control of the upper house into Republican hands until the two renegade Democrats got what they wanted, which above all seemed to be the toppling of a black majority leader. At this point, Monserrate's only hope of survival depends on whether his district is one that could be claimed by a Republican in the next election in the absence of his own personal following. The New York Democracy now considers him expendable, however, and this shows that partisan immunity is a concept formulated for partisan rather than individual benefit. If the party does not benefit from extending immunity to an individual politician, that individual will be left to his own devices, at best.

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