The moment I heard about the indictment of Rick Perry for abuse of power and read what the case was, I had doubts about the strength of the case. The legal theory of the case seemed pretty flimsy and liberal columnist Jonathan Chait agrees, calling the charges “unbelievably ridiculous.”
They say a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and this always seemed like hyperbole, until Friday night a Texas grand jury announced an indictment of governor Rick Perry. The “crime” for which Perry faces a sentence of 5 to 99 years in prison is vetoing funding for a state agency. The conventions of reporting — which treat the fact of an indictment as the primary news, and its merit as a secondary analytic question — make it difficult for people reading the news to grasp just how farfetched this indictment is…
Perry stands accused of violating two laws. One is a statute defining as an offense “misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.” The veto threat, according to the prosecutor, amounted to a “misuse.” Why? That is hard to say.
The other statute prohibits anybody in government from “influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.”
But that statute also specifically exempts “an official action taken by the member of the governing body.” The prosecutors claim that, while vetoing the bill may be an official action, threatening a veto is not. Of course the threat of the veto is an integral part of its function. The legislature can hardly negotiate with the governor if he won’t tell them in advance what he plans to veto. This is why, when you say the word “veto,” the next word that springs to mind is “threat.” That’s how vetoes work.
Chait is hardly alone. Matthew Yglesias said on Twitter, “Hard for me to imagine these Rick Perry charges sticking” and added, “Does anyone think this Perry indictment makes sense?” Even David Axelrod, President Obama’s campaign manager and adviser, said the indictment “seems pretty sketchy.” Liberal legal scholar Alan Dershowitz says he’s outraged by the indictment and calls it a bluntly political act.
Not only do I doubt they can get a jury to convict Perry on this, I have my doubts it will ever get to trial. Pretrial motions may well be enough to get the charges dismissed.