Of Senators and Sympathies
Posted by Goutam Jois on September 17, 2007
By now, it’s pretty well known that Senator Larry Craig has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in Hennepin County, Minnesota and announced his resignation (sort of). Virtually every news outlet and blog has picked up the story (for example, see here, here, and here), and the police report and the recording of the police interview have been passed around the Internet in a voyeuristic frenzy. (In case you’ve missed the ten-minute police interview, you can listen via the Youtube video below.) But more interesting, at least here at The Situationist, are the attributions of responsibility and blame that some are quick to make, or not, regarding Senator Craig.
The oft-repeated story goes something like this: Senator Craig was picked up for very likely soliciting gay sexual activity in a bathroom in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. Senator Craig has, in the past, been outspoken against gay rights, including voting for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate (ranking number 16 out of 99, according to the National Journal). Therefore, it seems the senator is a hypocrite.
This attributional story is simple and satisfying (or not, depending on your political orientation), but it may be wrong. As I argued in an earlier post, charges of hypocrisy make dispositionist assumptions about the target and presume that the “hypocrite” is not acting in accordance with his disposition. Of course, a fundamental tenet of situationism is that our behaviors will often not reflect our explicit beliefs, attitudes, or values — even when they are sincerely and deeply held.
But there is another level to the Senator Craig story, one that is particularly deserving of situational analysis. In recent days, the Senator has sought to withdraw his guilty plea. Specifically, he argued that he was “deeply panicked” in the aftermath of his arrest and that he pled guilty under the assumption that the incident would never become public.
For his part, Senator Craig has won some allies. Arlen Specter, a moderate and highly respected member of the Senate, argued on CNN recently that Senator Craig should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. Senator Specter said that all he wanted was for Senator Craig to get his “day in court,” just like anyone else. After all, Senator Specter pointed out, Senator Craig has his life and his reputation on the line. When police officers asked him to plead guilty, Senator Craig had not consulted with legal counsel. With such high stakes, why not simply allow the guilty plea to be withdrawn — particularly when Senator Craig has such a strong ally in Senator Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee?
Well, for one thing, we would do well to ask where Senator Specter’s sympathy comes from. One can make a very strong case that Senator Craig’s guilty plea was “knowing and intelligent,” as the law requires: certainly, as a United States Senator, Larry Craig had some sophistication as to the law; his guilty plea was signed several weeks after the incident, allowing a reasonable “cooling off” time; and the Senator surely could have afforded to retain (or at least consult with) an attorney. Former District Attorney Arlen Specter almost certainly knows that.
Senator Specter almost certainly knows that there are large numbers of people who regularly plead guilty or confess to crimes without consulting attorneys and, who, consequently never get their “day in court.” In fact, he probably witnessed firsthnd the guilty plea process countless times when he was a D.A. in Philadelphia. And surely he knows that those people — generally those with lower income, lower education levels, little access to good legal counsel, and fewer political connections — are rarely allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas, even if they were “deeply panicked” when they spoke to the police, even if they had their “life” or “reputation” on the line, even if they wanted to avoid negative publicity. More or less every guilty plea is entered in the unmistakable shadow of some very ugly possibility which the plea helps to avert.
At the same time it is hard not to sympathize with Senator Craig. Maybe he is a victim of circumstance; maybe he was simply trying to keep his sexual orientation under wraps because he did not think it would be accepted; maybe he was just trying to beat the rap. Whatever the case, there are many of his defenders who argue vehemently for his right to withdraw his guilty plea, even though those same voices generally do not call for prototypical “criminals” — defendants accused of gun-running, drug dealing, violent acts, and the like — to be allowed that same right. Are those people also hypocrites?
Again, social psychology offers some explanations. We are, as other contributors have observed, “selectively situationist.” We are more likely to relate to the predicament of someone with whom we identify than with someone who is “other.” Senator Specter, predictably, can relate to the plight of a fellow senator who wishes to avert a crisis, and can muster clever and compelling legal arguments as to why the usual rules ought not to apply to him. The ordinary “street criminals,” on the other hand, are far from the Senator’s in-group. No wonder we don’t hear Senator Specter arguing for a wholesale liberalization of the laws governing guilty pleas. After all, this Senator simply got caught up in the situation and should be allowed to plead his case; those people are bad and are trying to avoid taking responsibility for their bad acts.
Indeed, Senator Specter can say quite easily that all he wants is for the rules simply to be followed in this case; after all, it is not as if he is arguing that a new exception be created for his colleague. But that’s just it: the people who are calling for the rare “manifest injustice” provision to be invoked here are almost never the ones who are calling for the provisions to be invoked on behalf of the everyday, generally indigent, criminals. Again, we tend to see situation when those like us are in trouble; we tend to see disposition when those unlike us are.
In the justice system, criminal defendants regularly lose their cases for filing papers a day late, for not scrupulously following the correct procedures, or for failing to clear any one of myriad procedural hurdles. Those rules may or may not be ideal — but until they are changed, Senator Craig should have to play by them like anyone else.