At times, being a public servant is kind of like volunteering to sit in a dunking booth. A long line of people will take turns trying to hit the bull's-eye and knock you off your perch. The smaller and more local the government, the bigger the target.
Last week, the Supreme Court made two decisions regarding the size of the bull's-eye. In one, the justices made serving on a city council much less worrisome for the average person. But in another, they made the target much wider, especially for police officers.Let's start with the good news, and it was good, indeed. The court ruled unanimously that elected local officials can't be sued for federal civil rights violations resulting from the things they do in office. The concept is known as governmental immunity, and the court already had granted it to state and federal lawmakers.
Simply put, city councils and county commissions are elected to make the decisions they think are best. If they screw up, voters can throw them out. But they shouldn't have to worry that the people opposed to their decisions will sue them. It's an idea that has its roots in 16th and 17th century England.
In this case, a black woman, Janet Scott-Harris, who had been the administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services in Fall River, Mass., had sued because she believed the mayor and a City Council member had eliminated her job for racist reasons. Way back in 1990, Scott-Harris had recommended the firing of another city employee for making racist comments. That employee then befriended the mayor and council member, who instead imposed a minor suspension without pay. A year later, the mayor proposed totally eliminating Scott-Harris' department, including her job as administrator.
Scott-Harris was offered a lesser job and lesser salary, which she refused. Was the city's decision racially motivated? Who knows? However, no one ever was heard making any comments, even off-the-cuff, along those lines. But, as Justice Clarence Thomas noted, it is inconsistent with the American system of government "for a court to inquire into the motives of legislators."
Why is this important? Fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in running for office these days. The problem exists here in Utah, as well. It got so bad that last year the city of Lindon had to ask for a legal opinion as to whether it even needed to hold an election. None of the seats was contested.
People have a lot of reasons for not running. They don't have time to sit through meetings and listen to constituents. They don't want to be publicly scrutinized and criticized. But at least now they don't have to worry about being sued for their decisions.
But the same can't be said about police departments, and that leads me to the second decision. The court, without comment, refused to hear a case involving Muskogee, Okla., police officers who shot a man who was waving a gun at them from a car. That means a trial now can proceed to determine whether the city inadequately trained its officers.
In 1994, Terry Lee Allen had a fight with his wife. He had been drinking beer and taking pain medication, and he was upset because he had been fighting in vain for two years to receive worker's compensation for a back injury. Life was tough, so Allen decided to take guns and ammunition with him as he drove away.
He went to his sister's house, where he sat in the car and threatened to kill himself. Eventually, police arrived and ordered him to drop the gun. From here, the facts get a little fuzzy. Reportedly, one officer held Allen's left arm while another tried to grab the gun. One thing led to another. Allen pointed the gun at police and fired. The officers shot him four times, killing him.
An expert witness said the officers went about it all wrong. They should have tried to calmly reason with him from a distance.
Maybe so, but police officers are asked to make many split-second decisions based on circumstances as they perceive them. Unlike a city council member, their decisions can mean the difference between life and death, and they don't have the option of calling a public hearing before they act.
Police must be held liable for actions that are unconstitutional, abusive or excessive. But the "inadequate training" defense attacks the entire department. Suddenly, thousands of police departments nationwide are open to lawsuits of every kind.
Perhaps the moral is that, at least last week, it was better to be elected mayor than sheriff. Republics will always struggle with the interaction between those who govern and those who are governed. That is how it should be. But with fewer people wanting to step forward and serve, decisions that make service less frightening are definitely more welcome than those that make it easier for the servants to be dunked.