This week’s Sounding Board (left to right): Rob Doar, Sarah Walker, Jeff Hayden, Fritz Knaak, Wy Spano
This week’s topics: Averted shutdown; voting rights ruling; Cosby is free
Welcome to Session/Law Sound-off, the weekly current events quiz where we approach smart folks from across the political spectrum and they tell us what’s on their minds. Their views are entirely their own.
Query 1: Lawmakers passed the state’s $52 billion budget during a special session that saw a number of twists and turns, the end to the peacetime emergency, and a lot of sweating over a possible government shutdown. What do you think history will remember about this episode?
Rob Doar, political director, Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus: I think we’re going to see that, while there’s a whole lot of rhetoric that happens, at the end of the day it’s still the things that people agree on that are going to advance.
Sarah Walker, political consultant: I would say it’s going to be the debate over public safety as it relates to George Floyd and also the debate about the progressive movement at the moment. This session is going to be defined by how George Floyd spurred a huge conversation on policing and public safety and ultimately, it’s going to be defined by not having accomplished very much in that area. It’s also the beginning of a long-term internal war, I think, over public safety within the Democratic Party—with the progressives against moderates.
Jeff Hayden, former DFL state senator: That the government didn’t shut down and that they got their business done. I think it’s really hard to remember sessions past. The only thing that the people remember is if there was disruption. And there wasn’t.
Fritz Knaak, attorney, former GOP senator: I’m not predicting and saying that, absolutely, the pandemic is all cured or anything, but I think it will be remembered as the big session that ended the pandemic. And it will be something of a milestone because of the amount of money, the [federal] pass-through and everything else, that was spent. I mean, it was within living memory—God forbid, in my adult memory—that Minnesota passed its first billion-dollar budget. Now we’re at a $52 billion budget and that money’s going all to kinds of interesting places. There was enough money so that no one was really screaming about it. They spent $52 billion dollars and they gave a billion back in tax relief! I mean, my God!
Wy Spano, lobbyist and political consultant: I’d say it’s the move toward understanding that we’ve gone too long with too few resources in government, and we’re going to have to change that. This [budget] is a lot bigger than it’s ever been before and that is because there’s just a whole lot of need. Republicans really don’t like that idea. But the truth is they were stuck. I think they determined that they had to do something. They had to allow government to go on, even though their inclination would have been to just shut it down. So they got dragged into this new era.
Query 2: The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling 6-3, upheld Arizona’s voting laws that criminalize “ballot harvesting” and that reject votes cast in the wrong precinct. The decision suggests the nation’s highest court will do little to curb new voting-restriction laws; NPR’s Nina Totenberg says it leaves the 1965 Voting Rights Act all but a “dead letter.” What was your reaction?
Doar: While I have some issues with the laws themselves and find them largely unnecessary, the rhetoric about the scope and effect of the laws I find to be really excessive and kind of misleading.
Walker: My reaction is that this was a very disappointing result, but it was also fully expected. I think what this means is that voting rights advocates can’t rely on the courts to make progress. The battle is going to continue at the state level. But if Congress does one thing, they should pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4). It’s more important for the future of voting rights than any other thing.
Hayden: Elections matter. And when we don’t participate in democracy at the levels that we should, we end up with Donald Trump and thus we end up with this regressive court.
Knaak: This is an area that is near and dear to my heart, as you know. I think the Nina Totenbergs out there, and other people who are repeating this narrative about “voter suppression,” are just engaging in a bunch of bullshit. I would say the same thing to Trump, with all this business about fraud. There was no fraud—that’s bullshit. What you’re doing is fueling the discomfort that people very legitimately had about the  election and creating, here, a controversy where there shouldn’t be one. Both parties should have agreed after this last election, with the pandemic and everything like that, to take a look [at the voting system] and use this as an opportunity to reassure ourselves that the system’s basically sound and that, with a few tweaks, we should be OK. Neither party did that. I think both parties have done a huge disservice in emphasizing the wrong things. And Nina Totenberg is just wrong.
[Editor’s note: Knaak was U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman’s attorney during the razor-thin 2008 U.S. Senate election recount, which Al Franken ultimately won by 225 votes. Knaak says he will go to his grave believing that, had a few more rejected absentee ballots been counted, Coleman would have won re-election.]
Spano: It’s not a surprise. I think the court has been sort of telling us this for a long time. It’s sort of the result of a group of people who have been chosen because they think everything ought to look like it did when the country was founded. And so, Black people and women really shouldn’t look to the court for much help. The Federalist Society is all originalists and those are people who don’t want any of these “terrible things” to go on. It brings out that, if Democrats can increase their majorities in the next election, we’re going to have to add [more justices] to the court. Because they’re just hopeless. They’re kind of beyond any common sense, in terms of legal philosophy.
Query 3: Bill Cosby is free after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor who convicted him for sexual assault was bound by a predecessor’s non-prosecution agreement with Cosby. What do you want to say about that?
Doar: I think it is critically important that any officer of the court observe due process and provide equal protection under the law. And part of the equal protection is that the office needs to be held to honor their agreements, not just the individual person. While I have zero sympathy for Cosby, I believe there were significant other things that could have been pursued that wouldn’t have required the office to renege on an agreement.
Walker: Honestly, I felt heartsick for his victims over this. In an era of criminal justice equity concerns, it just shows that people with resources frequently are able to game the system, while the poorest and least advantaged end up trapped in a cycle.
Hayden: I don’t excuse Mr. Cosby’s behavior. But we are a country that is bound by the rule of law. It sounds like the prosecutor got it wrong and that he was bound by the agreement and the deal made by his predecessor. And I think that that’s important. There are many people who are in jail but shouldn’t be. And there are many people who are not in jail as they should be, because they had good legal counsel. That’s just the way it works in this country.
Knaak: What can you say about that? The deal was, “OK, Cosby, you tell the truth and we won’t prosecute you, but they might sue you civilly.” So he does that and tells the truth. And by telling the truth, he admits under oath that, among other things, he drugged women and did all the kinds of things that he was accused of doing criminally. I think the state should be held to its deals, regardless of whether they’re good deals or bad deals. But they’ve released somebody who is, under oath, an admitted offender. It’s an ugly situation. I sure wouldn’t be crowing victory if I were Cosby. If there’s a lesson in that for prosecutors, it’s don’t do this kind of a deal.
Spano: It’s just so sad. Yet, from a lawyerly standpoint, I guess it’s what you’ve got to have. But it’s really painful to watch. It’s just awful.