A Question of “Impartiality”

An article this morning in The Hill is entitled “Some question whether lawmaker trying Waters can be impartial.”  The premise of the story is that Representative Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), one of the Democratic members of the adjudicatory panel that will be hearing the ethics case against Representative Maxine Waters (D-Ca.), may be compromised in some way because he won re-election by a “razor-thin margin in an increasingly red district.”  There is also a possibility (though likely remote) that Chandler’s victory could be overturned on a recount or through an election contest. 

            So how do these facts bring Chandler’s “impartiality” into question?   The article makes three suggestions.  First, it quotes unnamed sources as suggesting that, after a “hard-fought election in a majority-Republican state,” Chandler might want to prove that “he is capable of taking a hard stance against a member of his own party.”  If anything, however, this suggests that Chandler is likely to be more impartial than the average member of the panel.  If he appears unduly harsh toward Waters, he will alienate his Democratic base, not to mention his colleagues in the Democratic Caucus.  On the other hand, he will also want to avoid the appearance of being overly favorable to Waters so as to avoid alienating the more moderate or conservative swing voters in his district.  Chandler’s incentives, therefore, would seem to push him toward impartiality. 

            Second, the article quotes Charles Tiefer, a former counsel to the House and Senate, as suggesting that Chandler will more likely to be influenced by political considerations during the lame-duck session.  This makes no sense at all.  Since he will not face the voters for another two years, Chandler would seem to be as insulated from their views as he is ever likely to be.  To the extent that he is vulnerable to political influence, it would seem to come from his Democratic colleagues, who may play a role in determining his committee assignments and other congressional perks.  This would tend to push him in the direction of favoring Waters, not opposing her. 

            Finally, there is a suggestion that Chandler’s impartiality is compromised by the possibility that he could ultimately be declared to have lost his re-election race, or that he could wind up in an election contest before the Committee on House Administration.  These are remote and speculative possibilities, but even if they should occur, it is not apparent why they should adversely impact Chandler’s impartiality.  A defeated member would seem to have little reason to be partial to either side, while a member facing a possible election contest would seem to have more to lose than gain through injudicious behavior in conducting his obligations as a member of the Ethics Committee. 

              In short, the real charge against Chandler seems to be that he will not be partial enough in judging Waters’ case.  Perhaps this is why Waters’ counsel have not filed a recusal motion against Chandler, but prefer to try the issue in the newspapers.

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