Contempt as Civil Disobedience Tactic

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsLittle Rock      What’s up with local politicians and their willingness to go to jail for refusing to obey court orders?

Of course we have the Democratic Rowan County Kentucky clerk of court who felt like she could personally refuse to follow a US Supreme Court decision and a Republican federal court’s contempt order that she had to issue a license to allow same-sex marriage in her county. Somehow she thought she could suggest that they travel to some other county rather than where they lived and paid taxes because her personal religious preferences she feels are more important than her oath of office and job. Normally, that’s when someone resigns if they feel so strongly about something, but in her case, sitting in jail seems to work. Meanwhile five of her clerks had no problem agreeing that, if it was all the same, they would follow the law, so this all works out: people can get married and the clerk of court gets a closer understanding and an insider’s perspective of why so many people are calling for a criminal justice overall.

And, then there’s the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. Seems like only days before he was having his moment in the sun, shaking hands with President Obama, running around the city banging the resilience drum about Katrina recovery, being featured in a national magazine as a big whoop, but now he’s claiming he would be happy to be under house arrest for the final two years of his term of office in contempt of Judge Kern Reese’s order that he finally honor the court’s decision to pay firefighters. Maybe house arrest in New Orleans seems like an AirBnb visit or a stay-cation and a break for the Mayor from his civic duties, and a chance to spend time with his family. What’s up with this? Is this civil disobedience or some kind of new rest-and-recreation tour for elected officials?

The story in New Orleans is basically a lesson in negotiating from weakness while trying to convince others to negotiate against themselves. The City shorted the firefighters on pay increases ordered by the state legislature. The firefighters’ union, unsurprisingly, went to court some years ago when this happened. Equally unsurprisingly, the court ruled that the city needed to pay up, and because this had slogged through the system for some years before the decision, the price tag was now $75 million or so in lost wages. One mayor after another tried desperate appeals, head fakes, poor mouthing, and about everything other than paying the firefighters what they owed them. Some, including Mayor Landrieu, even tried to divert the issue by claiming that the firefighters were so inept at handling their own pension funds that they would bungle up the money. Of course this argument means little when the Mayor was still not forking over the money for them to bungle. The other problem is this whole interest thing, as we know from opening our bills at our own homes. We don’t pay and they slap on interest. Now the city owes a pile of interest. Furthermore, this pension problem means that New Orleans also owes the firefighters money in the pension because the benefits have to be recalculated to reflect the wage increases that the firefighters didn’t get.

Believe it or not, this whole thing goes from a huge mess to the comedy of the absurd. Eager beavers from the Chamber of Commerce and the like decide they are going to put their noses in the thing as stalking horses for the Mayor. They suggest things like a payment of a piece of the debt and then a partial payment of the rest over 30 years, some of which is contingent on passage of a bond issue by the voters. The city may paint the firefighters as bunglers, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid as bricks. The city then sweetens the offer, but still only is putting about half the money owed on the table.

Meanwhile the judge is putting on the heat since he didn’t believe he signed on to this case to dilly-dally with it for the rest of his life. Needless to say, it is also easy to imagine the caucuses between the firefighters and their attorney, Louis Robein, who no doubt reminds them from time to time about the obvious fact that the city wishes everyone would forget: that they already won the case, so should at least try not to negotiate with themselves. All of which leads the Mayor to beat his chest that house arrest seems great to him, and the union’s lawyer to say, yeah, sorry about the streets and other priorities, but “you have to make choices.” Well, Louie was being kind and pretending that the city had choices, when they really now have obligations. Judge Reese may be the only one with choices. He has a choice about this whole house arrest thing which he can easily substitute for time in the local jail, which would be a huge irony given the years’ long battle between the local jailer, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, and this same Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

These cases are really not civil disobedience. They are circus stunts. The clerk can either hand out marriage licenses to qualified folks or step down. The mayor can either figure out a way to pay the city’s bills or run for governor or step off.

The firefighters are a union. They know how to make a deal. But no union is ever going to just walk away from money earned and won and now packaged with a big fat ribbon and judicial order and seal. They might wait on some of the interest being paid or slice off a couple of million to help the city swallow the lump, but it’s easier to imagine the Mayor on house arrest than any real settlement not starting with a plan to pay the $75,000,000.