Betrayal. That’s what it’s called when people or institutions on which we rely turn against us, deliberately or inadvertently. One story today on the front page of The Star-Ledger illustrates two seamlessly interwoven examples—betrayal by the press, on which we rely for truth, skepticism and independent perspective, and betrayal by members of the judiciary, on which we rely for justice.
The story is what people in the newspaper business often crudely call a “big, wet kiss” and it was directed at Helen Hoens, until yesterday, a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court. In melodramatic terms more suitable to an obituary, it described her farewell to the court, a farewell arranged by Gov. Chris Christie who used Hoens for his own political purposes and then kicked her to the curb—again for his own political purposes. Christie said he wouldn’t nominate her to a tenured position because he didn’t want “the animals’’—Democratic legislators—to treat her unfairly.
Sadly, The Star-Ledger story of Hoens’ farewell was effectively the only story on her valedictory to appear in the main-stream press. It was picked up and reprinted by all of the commercial media that bothered to mention Hoens’ departure at all. It’s part of the future we face–one source of news, if there will be news at all.
The betrayal by the press comes to us mostly in the form of sins of omission. The article does not mention key facts. The first, and least important, is her husband Robert Schwaneberg, worked for many years as a Trenton reporter for The Star-Ledger. A good one, by the way, a man I considered both a friend and a guide to ethical issues. He, too, is an attorney. Given the prominent display of the article and its sympathetic bias, readers should know of the family ties between the newspaper and the subject of the article.
But let that pass. The real omissions are this: The newspaper failed to mention Schwaneberg at all—not even in an indispensable context of substantive importance: The husband of Associate Justice Hoens was an at will aide to Christie at the time when the court was dealing with issues of extraordinary political sensitivity, including school funding, judicial pay, and fair housing.
Christie indulged in unlawyerly political rants about all those cases, making it clear he would deem it a personal betrayal for justices to vote against his political position. Hoens should have recused herself—both because her own future on the court and, more importantly, her husband’s job, could be seen as at risk.
She didn’t recuse herself. Indeed, she voted to support Christie’s positions when he illegally flouted the school funding law, when he went on a rage against the absolute, Constitutional necessity of independent compensation for judges, and when he tried to destroy even the wimpy efforts of the state to ensure fair housing for the poor.
Hoens may or may not have had her own, acceptable reasons for her dissents, but her actions clearly created the perception that she might have been afraid of losing her prestigious and well-paid position on the court as well as her husband’s not quite so prestigious, but remunerative, position with the Christie Administration.
“This is a very tricky set of circumstances,” Robert Williams, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden, told me when I wrote a column about the potential conflict for The Star-Ledger. “A lot is at stake.”
But unemployment can be a bummer, as so many in New Jersey—of course, those without rich and powerful friends in high places—can attest.
Probably the worst sin of the story is a sort of joint enterprise by the newspaper and the judge herself to turn her farewell into the sort of maudlin feature story that, in the absence of investigation and independent analysis, has become the shelf-stock of main-stream media. The gist of the story was that Hoens attributed her views on the court to her experience with her son, a young man who suffers from autism. But the facts of her tenure on the court simply don’t support such a sentimental interpretation. Hoens said:
“Every important thing I ever became, all of the qualities like patience and compassion and strength and courage, all of it was forged on the anvil of autism. The truth of it is, I have never left the margins of society. I have never left the people like my son, the people in the shadows, the folks that the important people don’t see or just don’t want to see.”
Beautiful words and I know she meant them about her own child. But how can those words be squared with Hoens’ decision to support defunding educational programs for tens of thousands of students, many of them in as much need as her son? How can she write she has, in effect, learned to become a champion of “the folks that the important people don’t see or just don’t want to see” when she went along with Christie’s efforts to impede the construction of low-income housing throughout New Jersey, thereby exacerbating the conditions that cause isolation by race and income in this state?
Strength? Courage? Compassion? I am sorry but I can’t buy it. In her dissent on the school funding case, she argued that New Jersey’s urban school children should not be exempted from the pain of the financial crisis.
“There can be no doubt that, in a budget based on greatly diminished revenues that required considerable belt-tightening and shared sacrifice both generally and in education funding specifically,” school funding was cut only minimally, she wrote.
Of course, Christie could have raised taxes to protect New Jersey’s public school children. He refused. For political reasons. Hoens didn’t mention that. Where was her compassion and courage and strength then?
In her dissent on housing, Hoens followed the Christie line by insisting that the court give deference to the rulings of a state administrative agency the Governor controls rather than the demands of the as yet unfulfilled promise of the Mount Laurel decisions on affordable housing.
“(T)he appropriate, and indeed the preferable, remedy would be to identify that shortcoming and permit it to be addressed by the agency that the Legislature created, not to mandate that the agency undertake what is essentially an overhaul of regulations so that they utilize a formula of the majority’s choosing,’’ she wrote.
She already knew she was leaving the court when she wrote that, but how does her view help the “people in the shadows” of ghettoized housing in New Jersey?
Hoens, of course, can say what she pleases in her farewell. But the gist of The Star-Ledger article was that here was a woman who bore within her soul extraordinary compassion. It should have been mentioned somewhere that the compassion somehow never seeped into her court opinions.
Independent media owe their readers—and listeners—a duty of cold skepticism when it comes to public officials who should be held to account for the decisions they make on important public issues.
Articles like this one feed the impression—often an accurate one—that media employees and the people they write about are too often on too friendly terms. Or they write stories that read like greeting cards rather than analyses of events we need to know.
The press, instead of serving as a solution, becomes part of the problem.