Domestic violence is not a private matter

Pub date March 13, 2012

EDITORIAL The legal case against Sheriff Ross Mirkarmi has been essentially settled, with the sheriff pleading guilty to false imprisonment and avoiding a trial on domestic violence charges, but the political case is just beginning.

Already, there are calls for Mirkarimi to step down. And Mayor Ed Lee announced March 12 that he’s Mirkarimi’s plea to “a very serious charge that had introduce a new set of legal issues” merits a thorough review.

That could lead to an explosive scenario where the Board of Supervisors, in an election year, would have to vote on whether to remove a sheriff who many of the supervisors have worked with and supported over allegations that are in effect political poison. Anyone who wasn’t ready to throw the sheriff out of office could be accused of coddling a wife-beater.

Mirkarimi’s friends and allies say the sheriff didn’t want to plead guilty to anything. But the questionnaires that potential jurors had filled out showed that virtually everyone who might sit in judgment had read the sensational media coverage of the case, and Judge Garrett Wong had refused to move the trial elsewhere. The judge also rejected every significant motion Mirkarimi’s attorney, Lidia Stiglich, made, and allowed into evidence material that the sheriff’s team didn’t think should be admissible. So the situation looked bleak, and Mirkarimi took a deal.

Mirkarimi maintains his innocence, and says he has no intention of stepping down. He agreed to plead guilty to a crime that had very little to do with what happened New Year’s Eve, when the District Attorney’s Office said he got into a physical altercation with his wife that left her with a bruise on her arm. False imprisonment was never one of the original charges; as is often the case in criminal cases, both sides accepted a less-serious charge in the name of getting the deal done.

Why Mayor Lee sees that as “a new set of legal issues” is baffling; the issues are exactly the same as they were before the plea bargain. None of this is to say that the original charges, backed up by well-publicized (although never fully examined in court) evidence, aren’t serious. Domestic violence, as we’ve said repeatedly, is not a private matter, is not a minor crime, and has far too often been ignored by the courts, police, and prosecutors, sometimes with deadly consequences.

But the way this could play out will open Lee to charges of political opportunism. The mayor would need to charge Mirkarimi with “official misconduct,” which is defined in the City Charter:

“Official misconduct means any wrongful behavior by a public officer in relation to the duties of his or her office, willful in its character, including any failure, refusal or neglect of an officer to perform any duty enjoined on him or her by law, or conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers and including any violation of a specific conflict of interest or governmental ethics law.”

Other than the “standard of decency” statute, which is pretty vague, there’s not much in there for Lee to go on. Unless you say that because Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a crime with “imprisonment” in the name he’s somehow a threat to the inmates at the county jail, which is a huge stretch, it’s hard to call this “official misconduct.” (There is, on the other hand, the argument that Mirkarimi will be on probation, and thus part of the criminal justice system he oversees, and that it’s an inherent conflict of interest. That, however, would mean any sheriff who was on probation for anything would be ineligible to serve, which again is a stretch.)

If the mayor files official misconduct charges, and the Ethics Commission, by a supermajority, agrees, then the Board of Supervisors would serve in effect as a trial body, much as the U.S. Senate does in an impeachment case. Nine of the 11 supervisors would have to vote to permanently remove the sheriff from office.

If Lee takes that path, he’ll be setting in motion a political process that was designed in the Charter for highly unusual situations and has only been used once in the past 40 years. (And in that case, involving Airport Commission member Joe Mazzola, a court later ruled that the charges, involving his role in plumbers’ strike, didn’t rise to the standard of official misconduct.) You have to ask: Is this case, and this misdemeanor charge, worthy of the exercise of what is, by any standard, an extraordinary power vested in the city’s chief executive? Is it worth the political circus that would result from a trial by the supervisors (some of whom might well be asked to recuse themselves because of their prior relationships with Mirkarimi, making it almost impossible to reach the magic number of nine anyway)?

If the voters of San Francisco think the sheriff needs to go, there’s the right of recall — and it will be available the first week in July, when Mirkarimi will have served six months. If there’s not enough organized opposition to make that happen, he’ll be facing the electorate again in three years (and trust us, he will be opposed and every details of these charges will be part of the campaign). He’s going to pay for this far beyond his court-ordered probation and fine.

Whatever the plea deal, Mirkarimi was clearly involved in a bad conflict with his wife that turned physical. Unless the evidence we’ve seen so far is completely misleading, it’s clear that he left her with a bruise — and that he was at the very least nasty and more likely emotionally abusive to her. Now that the legal case is over, he needs to come clean and tell the public exactly what happened that day, at which point we can all decide if we believe him, if he’s shown that he’s changed, and if the public is willing to give him a chance at redemption.

But Lee should think very seriously before he escalates this by filing misconduct charges. Since the ones who have the most to lose from that are the progressives on the board who are often Lee’s foes, it will have the stench of political maneuvering — and at this point, nobody needs that. The mayor says he’s a unifier; this would be the most divisive thing he could do.