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THE SUPREME COURT COPS OUT

The Arizona Supreme Court now tells us that Evan Mecham is once again free to become our governor. How ridiculous can you get? I always presumed that judges were appointed to the Supreme Court because they were strong and independent enough to make an unpopular decision when called upon. I always assumed it was a body made up of men who stood above the baying of the madding crowd. I kept shaking my head in disbelief last week when political experts kept predicting this court wouldn't have the courage to throw Mecham off the ballot. "It would create an explosion," they kept saying. "The best thing is to let Mecham run. He can't win this time, anyway." The experts were right. I was wrong. That's the way the court decided, and by a unanimous vote. What does a decision like this tell us? Mecham is the only governor in this state's history to be thrown out of office through impeachment. His brief reign was filled with high jinks, high crimes, lowlife appointments and multitudinous misdemeanors. In keeping Mecham on the ballot, this court obviously took the easy way out, the path of least resistance. It took no risks. It made the decision it was easiest to live with. If ever there was a court that copped out under pressure, it is this group that was headed for the Mecham case by Vice Chief Stanley Feldman. Justice Feldman presided because Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon Jr., who sat at the impeachment trial, was obliged to excuse himself. If you sat in on the hearing, as I did, you could almost smell the decision wafting upon the air. Each justice who dared to ask a question, phrased it in a way that would give him an excuse to bow down to Mecham and his followers. They turned what should have been a tense courtroom episode into an exercise in boredom. Then the justices deliberated for more than a day before coming back with what they now want us to believe was a unanimous decision. I find that hard to believe. In fact, I would assume the vote was evenly divided among the four regular members of the court before Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Livermore was brought up from Tucson to sit as the tie breaker. If it wasn't a divided opinion, then this court is even weaker than I have already stated. Think for an instant what diminished standards the court has now set for the office of governor by making this ruling in Mecham's favor. It is telling us that the qualifications for governor in Arizona are so undemanding that even Mecham, a man who was booted out for a multitude of valid reasons, is eligible to run the very next time the office opens up. If Mecham were elected, he would be stepping in to assume command for the first term available since his ouster. In that case, what was the impeachment all about? What they are really telling us is this: "Of course Mecham deserved to be impeached. But he still has a lot of supporters out there who would jump up and down and cry foul if we kicked him off. We don't think he can win, so what's the harm in letting him run. Besides, if we voted against Mecham, one of his more extreme supporters is apt to do physical harm to somebody." The citizens of this state endured more than a year of bathos and turmoil when Mecham commanded from the ninth floor. Mecham's antics, his frequently expressed bigotry and his slippery morality made national news on a regular basis. None of it was good for the state. Before the impeachment process began, various national groups were conspicuously proud of the fact that they were boycotting Arizona. And now these Supreme Court justices tell us with straight faces that Mecham is welcome to run again. The polls show that he's actually within shouting distance of the lead in the race to win the Republican nomination. The GOP race has five candidates. This is a situation made to order for Mecham. With a light voter turnout, he has a solid chance to emerge triumphant. But the justices of the Supreme Court don't care about that. All they wanted to do was to get the case out of their court. What ever happened to the theory of checks and balances? None of the political savants gives Mecham a prayer in a general election against Terry Goddard. Don't be so sure. When Mecham runs, no one can predict the outcome. No one expected him to beat Burton Barr in the primary four years ago. Certainly, no one expected he'd emerge victorious in a three-way battle with Carolyn Warner and Bill Schulz, either. At this date, Mecham's campaign workers are collecting signatures to put the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday issue on the November ballot. The King holiday is Mecham's wild card. That single issue could bring a large turnout of bigots who agree with Mecham that King did nothing to deserve the creation of a holiday in his honor. It is from this portion of the voting population that Mecham derives his greatest strength. The people who resent and even abhor the name of Dr. King will be voting their racial prejudices. These bigots are Mecham's greatest supporters. So now we realize that it made no difference how well Michael Meehan, the attorney representing Dennis Ingram, argued his points before the court. The five black-robed justices were clearly not up to the onerous task of throwing Mecham off the ballot and enraging his followers in the process. Mecham asserted with a smirk after the hearing that Ingram was a straw man. He wants voters to think that Ingram's suit was bankrolled by one of the other candidates in the Republican race. Since J. Fife Symington III and Sam Steiger are currently leading, Mecham keeps hinting that one of them may be responsible. So now, the search is on for the man or woman who put up the money for Ingram to file his action with the Supreme Court. It's estimated that it cost as much as $30,000. That figure itself tells you that more than one person was involved. I predict that the organizer of this action won't remain unknown much longer. In order to raise the money for the suit, it was necessary to hold meetings and announce the intention to file the motion with the Supreme Court. Any secret shared by more than two people is no longer a secret. The people who donated will keep their mouths closed. Do you really expect that someone who gave $5,000 to such a fund would willingly come forward? But others who participated in the meeting and didn't contrubute are quite likely to whisper to their friends about it. Once this happens, the secret will be out. They won't be doing it for base motives. They will be doing it because everyone loves to gain insider knowledge on a fascinating story. I really think this is one of the few times in political history when money was raised secretly for a good end. I firmly believe that throwing Mecham off the ballot was the right thing to do. Mecham insists publicly that he wants to know who is behind the scenes. I doubt that he really does care at this point. The whole episode gives him fodder for his campaign. So it suits Mecham to blame the court challenge on the other Republican candidates, with emphasis on his most dangerous foes. Symington clearly doesn't have the imagination to try a gambit this daring. That's why Symington jumped before television cameras as quickly as he could to deny his participation and urge publicly that Mecham be allowed to run. Steiger wasn't involved either. He is old-fashioned enough to believe that he really wouldn't have won the job in the right fashion if people thought he was trying to beat Mecham fair and square.

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Tom Fitzpatrick