The case for reinstating Mirkarimi

EDITORIAL We know for a fact that on New Year’s Eve, 2011, Ross Mirkarimi, the elected but unsworn sheriff of San Francisco, had a physical altercation with his wife that left her with a bruised arm. We know she later complained about that bruise on a video lasting less than a minute. Beyond that, nobody except Mirkarimi and Eliana Lopez knows exactly what happened; there were no witnesses except the couple’s three-year-old son, no video taken during the fight, no audio recordings — nothing.

We know that Mirkarimi agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment — although we also know there was never any evidence that he actually imprisoned anyone.

That’s all we really know about the incident that has set off an expensive, drawn-out, political and legal battle that could change the city’s politics for years to come. If the whole thing seems a little overblown, that’s because it is.

There is nothing in the record that justifies Mayor Ed Lee’s move to suspend Mirkarimi, and nothing that would justify the supervisors voting to remove him from office. In fact, a removal vote would set a dangerous precedent for future mayors in a city that already gives its chief executive far too much power.

Let us examine the three main reasons why the board needs to vote to restore the elected sheriff.

1. If you believe Eliana Lopez, there’s no case.

The only person other than Mirkarimi who can honestly and accurately testify about the events of New Year’s eve is Lopez — and she has been clear, consistent, and convincing in her account.

Lopez acknowledges that she and her husband have had marital issues, that Mirkarimi wasn’t as supportive or her and their young son as he should have been, that he was away from home and working when she should have been sharing domestic duties. She was considering divorce — but was worried that Mirkarimi might gain custody of their boy.

She testified under oath before the Ethics Commission that Mirkarimi was never someone who “beats his wife” (to use Lee’s utterly inappropriate terminology). He had no history of domestic violence with her.

What he did was grab her arm during an argument, leaving a bruise. Inexcusable, but hardly a sign of serious assault. In fact, Lopez testified that she bruises so easily that just playing around with three-year-old Theo can leave marks on her.

Lopez testified that she made the video to use as a tool — a bargaining chip, so to speak — if Mirkarimi ever sought to gain custody of their son. She said she believed that her neighbor, Ivory Madison, who made the video, was a lawyer and that the video would be protected by attorney-client confidentiality. She said she never wanted to go to the police and never felt physically threatened by her husband.

The mayor charged Mirkarimi with attempting to dissuade witnesses and interfere with a police investigation, but those charges were based almost entirely on the testimony of Madison, whose rambling 22-page statement was so full of hearsay that the Ethics Commission tossed almost all of it. There was absolutely no evidence of witness tampering, and those claims were dismissed.

In fact, the only reason the commission recommended removal is the fact that Mirkarimi bruised his wife and pled to a misdemeanor — one that everyone knows he didn’t really commit. Remember: It’s legal, and common, in misdemeanor cases to plead to something you never did to avoid facing trial on more serious charges.

There’s no principled way to accept as credible the testimony of Lopez and still vote to remove the sheriff. If she’s telling the truth — and we believe her — the case should end right there.

2. Mirkarimi was chosen by the voters, and the voters can freely remove him.

Ross Mirkarimi was elected in November, 2011, with a clear majority in a contested race. The state Constitution provides an excellent remedy for replacing an elected official who has lost the confidence of the voting public; it’s called the recall. With a fraction of the effort that’s been spent on this case, people who feel Mirkarimi should no longer serve as sheriff could have collected signatures and forced an election.

The City Charter gives the mayor extraordinary authority — we would say too much authority — to unilaterally suspend an elected official and seek removal. That’s a power that should be wielded only in the most extreme cases, with great deference to the will of the voters.

Lee did no investigation before filing official misconduct charges. He based those charges on unsubstantiated claims, most of which were proven false. There’s a dangerous precedent here: If Mayor Ed Lee can suspend without pay Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi on such limited evidence, the ability of future mayors to misuse this power could be alarming. And remember: There is nothing in the Charter that allows anyone to suspend or seek removal of the mayor.

3. This case mangles “official misconduct.”

There’s another dangerous element to this case, and it’s not just a legal technicality. The New Year’s Eve incident occurred before Mirkarimi took the oath of office; on that day, he wasn’t the sheriff of San Francisco. He was a supervisor.

It’s hard to claim he was guilty of “official misconduct” on a day when he had no official duties. A fascinating, but unsigned analysis by somebody who clearly has a strong legal background is posted on the web (rjemirkarimi.blogspot.com). It notes:

“If the Supervisors approve what the Ethics Commission did on August 16, they will be handing a powerful new political weapon to all mayors, present and future. Good mayors may never misuse it, but other mayors might. No longer will such a mayor be limited to examining an opponent’s conduct while in office. He will have carte blanche and a strong motive to look farther back in time for personal misconduct that occurred before his opponent took office, and to use what he finds to suspend his opponent without pay and remove him from office — all while claiming (as undoubtedly he will) to be engaged in a noble pursuit of truth and justice.”

Let’s be serious: There have been San Francisco mayors with a long record of vindictive politics, or seeking any method possible to punish their enemies. There may well be again. Do we really want to have this case — this weak case driven more by politics than reason and evidence — set the precedent for the grave step of overriding the voters and removing an elected official?

Any of these three reasons ought to be grounds to vote against the mayor’s charges. Together, they make a sound enough case that it’s hard to imagine how the supervisors, sitting as a fair and impartial jury, could come to any conclusion other than returning Mirkarimi to office. We recognize that there are political implications, that Mirkarimi’s foes will target anyone who votes to support him. And just as it’s hard for some politicians to appear “soft on crime,” it’s nearly impossible to survive in San Francisco if you’re considered “soft on domestic violence.” But anyone who doesn’t want tough choices shouldn’t run for public office. It will take courage to do the right thing here — and in the end, that’s what should matter.