Miller's misadventure

July 03, 2002

SENATE PRESIDENT Thomas V. Mike Miller knows that in politics perception is reality.

Thus he should know he's busted -- caught in the act of ill-conceived phone calling to the judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Completely innocent, Mr. Miller now proclaims. Yet the Senate president acknowledges getting judges on the phone and "yelling" at them when the court was considering Gov. Parris N. Glendening's new legislative district map -- a set of boundaries that could have meant political life or death. His own political future, not to speak of his party allies', was on the line. Would the judges accept the boundary lines drawn by Mr. Miller and others? Or would they throw the governor's map into the trash and start over? Surely, the Senate president preferred the former approach.

So he made the calls. The map was shelved in favor of one drawn by the court -- a certainty after the Miller calls because the judges had to protect themselves from another perception: that their judgment could be influenced by a powerful senator.

Republicans quickly jumped all over the senator from Prince George's County. They called for action by the overseers of lawyer ethics: the Attorney Grievance Commission, the State Ethics Commission and the General Assembly's ethics committee.

Mr. Miller says he was just trying to clarify some other matters.

The explanations don't wash. To use a less elegant bromide: The voters of Maryland may have been born at night but it wasn't last night.

As a lawyer and experienced politician, Mr. Miller should have known how the calls would be perceived. He may well have thought no one would know about them. But now, with the calls out there in a highly partisan political arena, it looks as if he didn't much care about the perceptions. His party holds a 2-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration, so he may think he can yell with impunity.

Not so. Whether he's done something illegal or unethical -- or just arrogant -- his phone calling will play through the campaign season. And it will have a deeper significance.

In sentencing one of Mr. Miller's friends for fraud last year, a federal judge lamented what he called a culture of corruption in Annapolis. By that, presumably, he meant an atmosphere in which all sorts of questionable actions are taken by high-ranking public officials, including calls to judges while they deliberate the people's business.

Mr. Miller ought to admit that his phone calls were wrong.

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