Years ago, when campaigns were drowning in political rhetoric on the crime issue, I got The Washington Post to reassign me temporarily to the District of Columbia courthouse so I could learn from front-line law enforcement people what worked - and what didn't - to keep the streets safe.
One of my mentors was Reggie Walton, then a trial court judge in the District, later elevated to the federal bench, and now in the news as the man who presided over I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's trial and last week sentenced Vice President Cheney's former top aide to 30 months in prison.
Walton was - and is - no coddler of criminals. But as I heard him tell many a defendant who stood before him in the old days, his guiding principle is always to teach a lesson about the consequences of life choices.
Growing up, Walton himself had plenty of temptations to live on the other side of the law. After he became a judge, he spent countless hours visiting schools in the blighted neighborhoods of Washington, telling teenagers the vital importance of building internal defenses against the lures of "the easy way."
When he had first-time offenders in front of him for sentencing, he regularly spurned their pleas for probation, telling them that they had to understand the seriousness of their crimes - and that he hoped their time in jail would give them the opportunity to ponder that lesson.
Now, many conservatives are up in arms about Walton "throwing the book" at Libby. Part of their criticism is based on their belief that Libby's long and effective government service - attested to by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a host of other worthies - should mitigate whatever errors in judgment he made in this case.
Their bigger complaint is that the White House official's conviction on felony counts of lying and obstruction of justice was a byproduct of a "leak" investigation that itself was unnecessary.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald learned soon after taking the job that Richard Armitage, a high State Department official, and presidential assistant Karl Rove were the sources columnist Robert Novak used in identifying CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson's role in her husband's covert mission that ultimately challenged the Bush administration's rationale for war with Iraq.
Armitage made his admission immediately, and Rove - who made repeated trips to the grand jury - apparently told a version of his own story that persuaded Fitzgerald not to indict him.
Despite the absence of any underlying crime, Fitzgerald filed charges against Libby for denying to the FBI and the grand jury that he had discussed the Wilson case with reporters. Libby was convicted on the testimony of reporters from NBC, The New York Times and Time magazine - a further provocation to conservatives.
I think they have a point. This whole controversy is a sideshow - engineered partly by the publicity-seeking former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, and heightened by the hunger in parts of Washington to "get" Rove for something or other.
Like other special prosecutors before him, Fitzgerald got caught up in the excitement of the case and pursued Libby relentlessly, well beyond the time that was reasonable.
Nonetheless, on the fundamental point, Walton and Fitzgerald have it right. Libby let his loyalty to his boss and to the administration cloud his judgment - and perhaps his memory - in denying that he was part of the effort to discredit the Wilson pair. Lying to a grand jury is serious business, especially when it is done by a person occupying a high government position where the public trust is at stake.
Knowing Walton a bit, I was certain that he would never be party to allowing a big shot to get off more easily than any of the two-bit bad guys who used to show up in his courtroom for sentencing. When he goes to his next school session, he wants to be able to tell those young people that "no one is above the law," and mean it.
You see, Walton is not just in the business of enforcing the law. He is also committed to steering youths in the right direction. This case will help.
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