Mr. Wagner Faces The Arnick Rules

COMMENT

February 28, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST | ELISE ARMACOST,Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Poking fun at state Sen. Mike Wagner for "not getting it" would be so easy.

Nobody had a better seat at the John Arnick hearings than he. Yet he doesn't quite understand that the insults Mr. Arnick made to two female colleagues made ordinary people afraid that he could not be a fair judge in the District Court.

"John cussed. John used spicy language. He would take women out. Sure. So do all the other single guys down there," the Ferndale senator says.

But he still wonders: Should a few harsh comments outweigh three decades of legislative service? Why did all the radio talk shows and news reporters focus mostly on the bad and almost never on the good?

Sure, what Mr. Arnick said was disturbing. "But they were still just words. His actions were just the opposite."

Senator Wagner doesn't see that, outside the legislature, people don't care about John Arnick's record. Some care about whether he'd be a fair judge; others are just outraged at what they perceived as a double standard, one for Annapolis insiders, another for them. To them, Senator Wagner, chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, is just one politician looking out for another.

How easy it would be to dismiss him that way.

But politicians aren't caricatures, much as angry voters and talk xTC show hosts have succeeded in reducing them to that. Although he makes too many excuses for Mr. Arnick, at the same time Mr. Wagner raises some difficult questions about the Arnick case, the way it was handled and the way it will affect the behavior of the General Assembly.

In many ways, Senator Wagner is a microcosm of the whole legislature, grappling with the same conflicts and questions that have been churning ever since the hearings ended.

Defensive about the way the General Assembly does business, he rejects the stereotype of the corrupt lawmaker as "ridiculous." Yet he recognizes that something has gone wrong and that some things have to change.

Exactly how they have to change is not always clear. It used to be, Senator Wagner says, that he didn't think twice about calling a woman "hon." "But now when I see someone of the female persuasion, I call them ladies, not girls, not hon. I don't call them anything else but ladies." After a puff on his cigar, he admits: "I don't know what to call 'em."

He has never questioned the offensiveness of the things Mr. Arnick is supposed to have said. But he does wonder if Mr. Arnick got a fair hearing, from the public as well as the Senate, after the radio talk shows swung into action.

This is a more legitimate question than most of the media would like to admit. Throughout the entire debate, the public tacitly assumed Mr. Arnick's comments disqualified him for a judgeship. But no one mined the depths of his prejudices or his ability to rise above them.

Once the phone calls started pouring in to the legislative offices and the radio talk shows, nothing Mr. Arnick or his supporters said was going to make much difference. The press and the talk shows granted the dozens of people who testified in his favor comparatively short shrift.

Senator Wagner may have something when he warns of a danger with the public's newfound empowerment via talk shows: the possibility that politicians will soon be ruled by the mob mentality often found on those programs. While the majority rules in democracy, it is not always right, especially when people become governed more by their passions than by their reason.

One day, Senator Wagner predicts, "It's going to get to the point where we're going to say we need the good ol' boys back, because at least they had some courage."

That's debatable. But the senator is right about one thing: Whether this new trend is any better is an issue we're going to have to resolve.

So is the question of what qualities we want in government appointees. The Arnick hearings have left Senator Wagner unsure. If Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond Beck, formerly the state's leading pro-gun advocate, were being confirmed today, would he be disqualified because he wouldn't treat shooting victims fairly? Would someone who had worked for the legalization of drugs be thrown out for fear he'd be soft on drug users?

Senator Wagner says the answer lies in determining not only the biases of appointees, but also their ability to surmount them.

Did John Arnick have that ability? Senator Wagner thought so when he voted to confirm him.

But then he's asked a hypothetical question. If he had a daughter who had been abused by her husband, would he want her fate being decided by someone who had said the kinds of things John Arnick said about victims of domestic violence?

He has to think about that for a good, long time. Finally, he says, "That's a good question. I just don't know. He said some pretty hard things. Those statements were troubling."

Maybe, just maybe, the senator gets it, after all.

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