The President has commuted the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who stands convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. This means Libby remains, nominally, a convicted felon, but he has been spared the inconvenience of a two-and-a-half year jail sentence. He still has to pay a $250,000 fine, but surely the defense fund his well-heeled cronies have managed to scrape together will cover that. And even if he has trouble finding work in the public sphere -- the public he supposedly so lovingly served, save Valerie Plame and the rule of law -- I trust he'll be able to cash in on his connections and land some million-dollar-a-year job working for the likes of Halliburton. If only every felon had it so tough.
The case can be made that Mr. Libby is a decent man and dedicated public servant who was unfairly scapegoated for a failed war policy. It also could be argued that his mild manner and low public profile merely shielded from scrutiny most of his behind-the-scenes evil industry. Your partisan compass likely will dictate which pole has the greater gravitational force of truth. But the rule of law is not so much about truth as it is about judgment and order.
Mr. Libby was adjudged a criminal unanimously by a jury of twelve men and women. The jury, we must presume, had no political bone to pick and no score to settle. They had only facts to judge as challenged and filtered by the best legal defense team available. Mr. Libby was free to compel any witness he desired to testify on his behalf. All men are equals before the law, and even then Mr. Libby likely enjoyed vastly superior resources than just about any other defendant who passes through the system to face even more serious charges. Only Mr. Libby knows exactly what he did and what he intended, but it is left to the legal system -- not political pundits, professional or not -- to sit in judgment and delineate right from wrong.
The President's decision to commute a sentence (be it Mr. Libby's or anyone else's) disrupts the ordered scheme of justice. It is a power that presidents are expected to use sparingly to correct injustices inflicted by the system. And that, of course, is precisely the rub. Mr. Libby's case is not one truly about justice; it is a case about the political compass. (And I do not mean to suggest Mr. Libby's case is any different in that regard than other controversial pardons and commutations.) Sure, Mr. Libby's fate may seem harsh and unfair, but explain that to all the other persons who are convicted of more minor offenses on more slender facts but without all the political fanfare. If only every petty criminal who is unfairly convicted and faces prolonged incarceration had the benefit of political allies (or really any allies) who could wipe away their unfair sentences with the wave of a hand. Surely they all would gladly trade places with Mr. Libby.