Mirkarimi Case Approaches Pivotal Moment

The moment of truth is fast approaching for the future of Ross Mirkarimi, the embattled Sheriff of San
Francisco who has been denied the job to which he was elected nearly a year ago.

But that "moment" has profound implications for the rest of us, too.

Late in 2011, Mirkarimi was charged with three counts of domestic violence against his wife after a neighbor called police about her bruised arm. As the case unfolded, Mirkarimi's wife repeatedly asked the district attorney not to prosecute because of what she called an overblown incident. Nonetheless the city moved forward.

Ultimately, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment.

Timing is important here. The incident occurred after he was elected but before January 8th, when Mirkarimi was sworn in as Sheriff. After Mirkarimi's conviction in March, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi and demanded that the Sheriff-elect be removed permanently.

Following the city's prescribed process for removal, Lee presented his case to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, which agreed that Mirkarimi committed "official misconduct." The case now goes to the eleven member San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which can remove Mirkarimi with nine votes.

Two troubling questions have emerged from the Mirkarimi incident.

First, does his offense make Mirkarimi unsuitable for the job as Sheriff? Second, inasmuch as his crime was committed before he assumed office, how is it that Mirkarimi could have committed "official" misconduct?

The first question gets to the issue of domestic violence. Hardliners would argue that one incident is two too many and that such events tend to part of a pattern. Others would counter that this particular incident may not have risen to the threshold of abuse, especially if there are no other examples of egregious behavior.

Good people of different values can disagree on this one, to be sure.

But the second question is not so easy to equivocate. If someone is elected to office in November 2011 and commits a misdemeanor on December 31, and takes office in January, how is it that he has committed official misconduct when the event occurred before he assumes office?

He hasn't, yet that is exactly what the mayor and Ethics Commission have concluded.

The simple fact is that Mirkarimi's detractors are interpreting the rules to fit the incident.

That may be a "feel good" for the moment, but it sets a terrible precedent for the future. What's to keep the mayor from denying office to someone who is on the wrong end of a civil suit or who has a lien on his house or who has been arrested at a protest before taking office?

What's to keep any of these acts from being declared "official misconduct?" We can not afford to place justice on such a slippery slope.

There are legitimate ways to remove Mirkarimi if the public is incensed enough, either through gathering enough signatures to force a recall or defeating him at the next election. Either route would accomplish the goal of turning out an unwanted public official without perverting well-established rules.

Rules exist in a democracy so that we know how to behave and what to expect. To change a rule after the fact for the sake of expediency is a threat to us all and patently undemocratic. Elected officials need to be vigilant in rejecting such temptations.

Whatever Mirkarimi's misdeed, his actions pale next to those of Mayor Lee. If anyone has abused the powers of his office, it's Lee.  Let's hope the Board of Supervisors has more respect for the law.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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