|SHAUN HEASLEY/GETTY IMAGES
Dean speaks to members of a trade union in Ankeny, Iowa
Dean's Law and Order Views
The representative of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," is on some constitutional issues at odds with many in his party's base
The Contenders: Where Dems Stand on Key Issues
Joe Klein: Wesley Clark and Democratic Rivals Lack Courage
Covers Gallery: U.S. Presidents Featured on TIME's Cover
Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has rarely missed a chance in debates and smaller forums, as well as on his website to hammer the Bush administration's handling of civil liberties since the 2001 terrorist attacks. He's even taken other Democrats to task: "Too many in my party voted for the Patriot Act," he said last June in a not-so-veiled jab at some of his opponents in the presidential race. "They believed that it was more important to show bipartisan support for President Bush during a moment of crisis than to stand up for the basic values of our constitution."
But on Sept. 12, 2001, Dean had quite a different reaction. He told the Vermont press corps he believed the terrorist hijackings would "require a re-evaluation of the importance of some of our specific civil liberties. I think there are going to be debates about what can be said where, what can be printed where, what kind of freedom of movement people have and whether it's OK for a policeman to ask for your ID just because you're walking down the street…I think that's a debate that we will have."
Jay Carson, a Dean campaign spokesman, notes that Dean's comments came in the frenetic immediate aftermath of the attacks. "We shouldn't lose our focus on how the Bush administration has cynically used 9/11 to erode American civil liberties," Carson said. "Gov. Dean is and has been for his entire career a strong proponent of civil liberties for everyone." Dean's comments might be attributed to the emotion of the moment. But his views on certain constitutional and criminal justice principles have for years been at odds with those of many who form the base of the party who are in the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" that Dean says he represents.
At the time of Dean's post-9/11 comments, Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor, called them "terribly irresponsible." In an interview this week, he gave a broader critique of Dean's approach to legal issues. "Whenever law is involved, he's been dreadful," Mello said. "He just doesn't get the Constitution or what lawyers do or what the courts are for." The exception, he added: Some "surprisingly good" Vermont Supreme Court appointments.
Dean made it clear early in his tenure that he thought alleged criminals were cut too much slack. "My view is that the justice system is not fair," Dean said in 1991 during his first week as governor. "It bends over backwards to help defendants and is totally unfair to victims and to society as a whole." Robert Appel, former head of the state's public defender system, said he had constant clashes with Dean over funding for the service. According to Appel, Dean said on at least one public occasion that the state should spend less money providing the accused with legal representation, saying that "95% of criminal defendants are guilty anyway." (Carson says the comment was meant as a joke, but Appel counters that even if it was, "the underlying message was pretty clear.")
Which may be one reason why Dean, in 1999, wanted to refuse a $150,000 federal grant to the public defender's office for aiding mentally disabled defendants. "That was unusual, to say the least," says Appel. The state legislature overrode Dean's opposition. Dean spokesman Carson responded that Dean didn't want to create a program that the state couldn't afford to fund if federal money disappeared in the future. But he did not disavow Dean's anti-defendant bent. "This is a governor who was tough on crime and is a big believer in victims' rights," Carson says.
Dean's shifting views on the death penalty have raised questions about whether he has gone from being an outspoken opponent to a sometime supporter as a matter of political expediency. He says he began to change his mind in the late 1990s, partly as a result of the case of Polly Klaas, the California girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered. He attempted an explanation of his support for capital punishment, even while agreeing that in some cases "the wrong guy" might be executed, on NBC's Meet the Press earlier this year. Saying he thought the death penalty was preferable in some instances to a sentence of life without parole, Dean noted that in some instances criminals who are locked up for life might be freed on a legal "technicality" only to commit more horrible crimes. "That is every bit as heinous as putting to death someone who didn't commit the crime," he said.
Dean, whose support for the death penalty is limited to cases involving murdered children or police officers, or mass murder, has since refined his position. On his website, he says that as president he would order his Attorney General to evaluate the federal death penalty and take steps to ensure its fair application; support the Innocence Protection Act, a pending bill that would help defendants secure experienced lawyers and access to DNA testing; and set up a Presidential Commission on the Administration of Capital Punishment to recommend reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.
Appel is willing to give Dean the benefit of the doubt. "My hope is he has grown over time, and I think he has," he said. But the former governor's explanations don't satisfy some of his critics. "He has the wrong reactions when it comes to people's legal rights," said law professor Mello, adding, "I wish so much I could support him."
BACK TO TOP