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Commentary Government & Politics

Judge Steven Platt: Now we really find out who won and who lost

Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) announces that Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller (D) will head his transition team. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

By Steven I. Platt

The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.

With the election over, the headlines and the stories that follow them turn from charge to countercharge, who’s winning, who’s losing and what do the results of the election mean. Those who are the most cynical among us will say the results of the election do not mean much.

However, the more naive among us, in which group I include myself, will choose to believe that it will make a difference if the new administration in Annapolis and the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives are staffed with the right kind of people. By that, I do not mean Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, etc. I mean people, who recognize and still believe that there is a thing called “the public good.” Their desire for appointive or elective office is primarily driven by their desire to promote the public good, not satisfy their personal ambition.

There is nothing wrong with ambition, ego or a desire for power and attention. Indeed, it is a part of most of us, but it should not be the principal motivation for someone to seek to be a cabinet secretary, speaker of the House, a committee chair or staff for an executive. Having your first name be a title should not be the most important thing in your life.

The government should be staffed with people who recognize that we attain the public good by balancing rights and responsibilities, reconciling compassion with our deeply held values of self-reliance and personal accountability. The government should be led by smart people, who acknowledge that when you choose a particular size for your government you also have to decide how to pay for it.

The government should also be inhabited at the highest levels by diverse people who are not afraid to have a candid dialogue about and among the races and sexes. They should know how and believe they should promote strong families while respecting the rights of those who live outside traditional family structures. Finally, they should know how and when to use government — notably the education system and Maryland’s proven capacity to promote research and development to ensure and increase our state’s economic growth and competitiveness.

I could not help but notice the headline in one of the major metropolitan newspapers the Friday after the election. It related that Gov.-elect Wes Moore had named Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller to head his transition team. Following that headline, the article discussed the competition for various political positions, power, and jobs. You have to wonder how many are doing so for the right reasons. Making sure the new administration chooses the most highly qualified and capable people who want these jobs for the right reasons can be aided by recalling and emulating some brief moments in state and national history.

A mentor and a friend of mine, the now deceased first chief judge and architect of the District Court of Maryland, Robert F. Sweeney, related to me a story that illustrates my point better than any experience of mine could. In 1970, when Sweeney was requested by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel to become the first chief judge of the district court and to build that court from scratch, he said to Governor Mandel words to the effect that “You do not want me because I will not tolerate even the appearance of corruption, favoritism, lack of courtesy, incompetence and insensitivity that had plagued the hodge-podge of People’s Courts, Municipal Courts and Housing Courts that the District Court was being established to replace. The first time any official, including any in your office, calls to meddle in a case, my response will be to call the prosecutor in that jurisdiction.”

In saying those words to the governor, Sweeney knew he was risking losing the chance to become the District Court’s chief judge and to be the historical figure in this state that he ultimately became. To Governor Mandel’s credit, he appointed him notwithstanding the ultimatum. The District Court of Maryland is, by all accounts, a model court for the nation, indeed a monument to the wisdom of both Governor Mandel and Chief Judge Sweeney. They both understood and served first and foremost “the public good.”

The historian Arthur Schlesinger relates the following account of the selection of Robert F. Kennedy to be attorney general by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, 10 years earlier. At the president-elect’s house in Georgetown in the early morning of a cold snowy day, John F. Kennedy confronted, among others, his brother, who wanted to go back to Massachusetts to establish his own political career and identity, “I need to know when problems arise that I am going to have somebody who is going to tell me the unvarnished truth, no matter what … and Bobby will do that.” The president-elect then went on to speak about civil rights: “I do not want somebody who is going to be fainthearted. I want somebody who is going to be strong, who will join with me in taking whatever risks and who would deal with the problem honestly.”

John Kennedy subsequently told a biographer, “I reminded my brother that every danger is an opportunity.” Robert Kennedy later summed up the conversation to Arthur Schlesinger by stating. “He said it was important to him and that he needed some people around him that he could talk to and whom he could trust to be honest with him, so I decided to accept it.”

“I did it not so much to become Attorney General as to be around at this time for my brother and our Country when they needed me.”

Let’s hope those Democrats (and Republicans) in the House of Representatives jockeying for jobs, positions and power, are doing so to “be there when they are needed, and not just to have the title, prestige, and power” and let’s also hope that the incoming administration and those persons seeking to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives have the wisdom to select committee chairs who are smart, competent and want to contribute.

Let’s also hope that they select individuals whom the governor of Maryland and whomever becomes speaker of the House can count on to be honest with them and not be timid or obstreperous because of their desire for attention, adulation, title, power, or prestige. I’m hopeful, but not confident.