What Sam Ponder Said
You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you — a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?
Tell the truth. There are plenty of you out there who are thinking to yourselves, "well, yeah. Duh." It's just like that old joke, "what do you call four black men in a Cadillac? Grand theft auto!" Because that's what blacks and hispanics do. They're mostly criminals. And welfare cheats. And lazy. And violent. Not all, of course. Some of your best friends are black and Hispanic, but those are the 'good" ones. They're different.
Some white folks try their best to recognize their inherent prejudice and fight it. They realize that the black and Hispanic experience is very real. They aren't proud of themselves for their inability to think of others with different skin color or ancestry, or gender or sexual preference, without imposing some degree of bias, but they are sufficiently aware to make the effort to not let their prejudice manifest itself in a statement like the quote that starts this post. They try to be better. They hope that the day will come when these ideas no longer exist in the deep recesses of their mind.
But the fellow who uttered these words didn't see the problem. When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who sits on the Hispanic seat, read these words, she was sufficiently offended that she wrote about it.
It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.
She was not so offended that she voted for the court to hear the case, however. Nor was she sufficiently offended as to include the name of the offending government official. As Jeff Gamso notes, so much for there being any consequences for doing wrong. Well, at least if you're a government official. Otherwise, there are consequences aplenty.
Rather than merely bemoan the grievous wrong of such an inflammatory and prejudices statement, Ken at Popehat did what no one in the media or on the Supreme Court (or any lower court, for that matter) was willing to do. He typed the letters that spelled out a name and identifying information of the person who uttered those offensive words.
Assistant United States Attorney Sam L. Ponder of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio
While Sam Ponder isn't the only man in America who lacks the metacognitive skills to recognize his prejudice, or the interest to overcome it, the fact that he's a federal prosecutor and exercises the power of his office in furtherance of his prejudice is a matter of great public concern. It should be important enough that the media identify the prosecutor who said it, that the courts identify the person who said, that the Supreme Court Justice who was so offended identify the person who said it.
Yet, no one did except Ken.
At the juncture of guts and media, former fuzzy-slipper wearing blogger turned Huffington Post media celebrity, Radley Balko, was moved by Ken's boldness.
Ken at Popehat is right — those of us who cover these issues need to do a better job of identifying prosecutors who cross the line. But this is also information that should be readily and publicly available. These are public officials. They work for us. And they have incredible power — the power to ruin lives. There's really no good reason why their misconduct should be obscured.
To that end, I'm going to start a recurring feature at this blog that will — as Popehat puts it — "name and shame" misbehaving prosecutors.
Radley points out, correctly, that questions and statements uttered in the course of a prosecution that play upon the incipient prejudice that remains at the core of whites is just one aspect of the wrongdoing that gives rise to Gamso's "no consequences."
Distasteful as Ponder's question was, prosecutors frequently get away with far more damaging misconduct — withholding or even manufacturing evidence, for example — and thanks to this habit of not naming them in appellate opinions, they not only escape professional sanction, but public accountability.
The problem goes even further than this, extending to the remedies provided by courts in those rare instance where misconduct is found. Forget naming the evil-doer. Forget the evil-doer suffering real-world consequences, whether getting fired or suffering financial liability for his conduct. The typical remedy is a do-over, where the government gets a second chance to do it the way it should have been done in the first place. The message is if you do wrong and get caught, a big "if" to begin with, the worst that will happen is that you will have to do it again the right way.
Those of us who type out words while wearing a bathrobe may not be considered serious by those who get paid to type out words on subjects about which they know little, but we have one thing going for us that more important voices lack. We have an appreciation of the fact that the courts protect those who do wrong while receiving a government paycheck. They may speak ill of their conduct, like a parent chastising a child for the 397th time to not put his elbows on the table, but never imposing any more of a punishment than making them get their darn elbows off the table.
Ken did what a Supreme Court justice lacked the fortitude to do. Gamso made the point that a Supreme Court justice failed to do when, despite her offense, she completed a unanimous denial of certiorari. Radley did what journalists who write for widely read "legitimate" media are loathe to do, compromising their access to power by taking a stand that will anger important government officials.
Putting Sam Ponder's name into the title of this post isn't sufficient. He should no longer be in the government's employ, but he is. The best the blawgosphere can do is impose our own brand of incentive to prevent prosecutors who do wrong from never suffering any consequences, not even the most minor of public exposure.
But at least we're trying and doing something. Otherwise, you would never know the name of Sam Ponder, the guy who thinks that blacks and Hispanics plus a bag of money equals drug dealing. And Sam's name deserves to be known, at the very least.