Mayor's `strategy' works to perfection


April 08, 2001|By NORRIS WEST

PERHAPS this was Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson's strategy all along.

Maybe Mr. Johnson has known for a long time that Alderman Herbert H. McMillan would challenge him for the Republican mayoral nomination this year.

Maybe he knew it when Mr. McMillan's "anti-drug-loitering" law came before the city council two years ago.

And, perchance, he could have known it when the bill became law.

What foresight!

At the time, I thought Mayor Johnson had failed to lead the important debate that pitted crime-prevention against constitutional rights.

I thought the mayor was ducking when he avoided the spotlight while Mr. McMillan campaigned ferociously for his bill against overwhelming opposition and common sense. But now it seems that the mayor was just biding his time, waiting for the legislation -- and for Mr. McMillan, the bill's sponsor -- to self-destruct.

Yes, the mayor did vote for the ordinance in October 1999, and he allowed the ill-fated bill to become law, just five months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Chicago ordinance that had similar constitutional problems. But he did not give the measure such ringing endorsement that he could claim ownership.

The mayor has stood firmly on middle ground, even as city lawyers had the rotten job of defending this defective law in court.

He gave himself enough room to wash his hands of the legislation, probably well aware that a federal court could not possibly leave intact a law that assaults both the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens.

If that's how Mayor Johnson figured things would work out all along, it was an ingenious, visionary political stroke.

In hindsight, it's easy to see how anyone could predict that U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake -- or any other judge who respects the Constitution -- would rule against the law.

In issuing a 45-page opinion striking down the Annapolis ordinance last week, Judge Blake termed the law "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad." She said the legislation threatened to criminalize lawful behavior.

Opponents had argued that the law could make a criminal act of conducting voter registration drives or just minding one's own business. Move your hands the wrong way, and a person could be identified as engaging "in a pattern of ... conduct normally associated with the illegal distribution, purchase or possession of drugs."

The law failed to define the litany of behaviors (i.e., "hand signals associated with drug related activity"), as the judge pointed out, and didn't require police to determine that someone specifically intended to deal drugs. Police would observe the behavior, check the list and divine intent. Florida election judges had an easier job last November.

The guilty and innocent alike could be ordered from so-called "drug-loitering-free" zones, or arrested.

City attorneys knew they were arguing a losing cause. Mr. McMillan now says he has always believed that the ordinance would ultimately prevail in federal appellate court. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has been the most conservative appellate court in the country, but even that bench would have to recognize the supremacy of the Supremes.

That's why Mr. McMillan's harsh criticism of Judge Blake's opinion was almost as unwise as his ordinance.

The alderman told Sun reporter Amanda Crawford that the ruling was "ridiculous" and "absurd."

He said: "This was a poor decision rendered by another liberal judge who lives in an ivory tower and reads the Constitution through rose-colored glasses."

Sounds like Mr. McMillan is begging Judge Blake to assess the city more than $200,000 in legal fees to American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland lawyers. The ACLU represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Anne Arundel County branch and could be entitled to fees.

Besides, Mr. McMillan is wrong. The judge's decision simply was in keeping with the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings.

The alderman might as well have called Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer liberal judges in ivory towers, too. They voted to strike down the Chicago ordinance in a 6-3 ruling.

Mr. McMillan is raring for an appeal, but his city council colleagues are being more judicious. A majority has said an appeal is unlikely.

Is this the scenario that Mayor Johnson was counting on from the start? Give your primary opponent all the rope he needs before the campaign starts?

If so, that was a master stroke.

Annapolis should walk away from its flawed loitering bill and find workable, lawful solutions.

The law aimed to boot drug dealers from public housing. To be sure, it's an aim worth fighting for.

So Mayor Johnson could do more than watch the centerpiece of his Republican challenger's campaign bite the dust. He and those campaigning to succeed him should put public housing at the top of their agendas. They need to come up with better ideas that the courts and public housing's good citizens can support.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.