HUDSON | Guild Mindsets | Opinion
In a recent essay for a New York magazine, Jonathan Chait introduces a word coined by fellow journalist, Jonathan Rauch, who writes at the Brookings Institution: “Demosclerosis.” Rauch argues that vested interests, including government agencies themselves, inevitably begin to stifle change and innovation to defend the status quo. The system of checks and balances placed in the Constitution of the United States by our Founding Fathers intuitively anticipates this propensity for a hardening of the democratic arteries, even if its authors had no name for this process.
Anyone who has worked in a large corporation or an expansive bureaucracy comes to recognize that they are trapped in a feudal system disguised as hierarchy. The barons and dukes of the corner offices carved out quasi-independent fiefdoms for themselves. This adherence to medieval organizational structures extends to the solidarity of guilds. For nearly 500 years, artisans and merchants formed guilds to provide apprenticeship training, restrict competition, control quality standards, and set prices for their wares. We often overlook the benefits that come from allegiance to a guild’s efforts to protect the welfare of its members.
Master craftsmen had to produce “masterpieces” to enter a guild. As skilled labor was replaced by industrial manufacturing, this drive to band together took modern forms – unions, professional associations and informal social alliances. Colorado is currently witnessing a clash between two seemingly separate, but actually interrelated guild conflicts. Each involves resistance and resentment to surveillance.
The Colorado District Attorneys Association has chosen to slam Gov. Jared Polis for commuting the 110-year sentence given to the truck driver responsible for an Interstate-70 wreck that killed four people and killed four. hurt others. The thrust of their objections seems to be that Polis should have let the legal process play out before interfering. On the surface, this complaint makes some sense. Why not allow a judge to come to a conclusion and make a recommendation? Yet the judge who handed down the original sentence lamented that mandatory minimum sentences under Colorado law compelled him to impose a sentence he deemed inadmissible. Tens of thousands of Coloradans accepted.
The Colorado Constitution grants the Governor the power to pardon, commute, or even exonerate accused or convicted persons when doing so is in the interests of justice. This is an essential check of a legal system that can and does occasionally override fairness. Governor Polis could have remained silent and let months of recriminations and media fascination dominate this tragedy. Or he could choose to cut the Gordian knot of legal wrangling, as he has. Whether he opted for a reasonable sentence is debatable, but his authority to resolve the situation is unassailable. That he got a call from Kim Kardashian doesn’t matter.
Who would have benefited from months, even years, of legal maneuvers? Apparently, Colorado district attorneys don’t like to be guessed. Rather than complain on behalf of their guild, perhaps they should form a task force that recommends reform of the mandatory minimum statutes that imposed such an absurd and onerous penalty in the first place. A parallel, if more mystifying, dispute has been the trail of complaints about misconduct within the Colorado Department of Justice — specifically, allegations of sexual harassment by one or more unnamed judges. This scandal has roots that go back many years. A chief justice suddenly retired. Payments that look suspiciously like silent money have been made in the face of threats to expose cover-ups. The stench is overwhelming.
To the new Chief Justice Boatright’s credit, he is committed to getting to the bottom of this story. Although law firms have been hired to investigate, it is unclear whether their eventual reports will be made public and considerable skepticism exists about the quality of any internal investigation. The Judicial Disciplinary Commission, which wishes to carry out an independent investigation, has approached the Joint Budget Commission to obtain funding which would normally have had to be provided by the Supreme Court. Boatright testified at the budget hearing in support of the Commission’s request without specifying why its budget could not be used for this purpose.
Ultimately, names will be named and reputations will be damaged. Guild members, in this case our judges, would prefer these reports to come from outside their guild hall (courtrooms). Along the urbanized Front Range, the identity of district attorneys and judges comes with a certain anonymity. In rural communities, however, these people are well known and easily recognizable — at the gas station or the grocery store. Their decisions influence the lives and fortunes of their neighbors. Therefore, there is a natural propensity to keep what happens in their offices inside the office. This can lead to a double standard that blinds guild members to violations of professional standards. (We all need someone to look over our shoulder).
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and former Colorado legislator.