THERE ARE MANY fair grounds on which to criticize Rick Perry’s performance as governor of Texas: his rejection of federal funding for Medicaid expansion and his grandstanding deployment of the state’s National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, to name just two. But the list does not include the charges newly levied against him by an Austin grand jury.
It’s true that the case revolves around bare-knuckled tactics by Mr. Perry (R). Last year, he threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the prosecutorial unit in Austin that investigates public corruption, unless that unit’s boss, an elected Democratic district attorney, resigned. That was bound to be controversial, given that the office was looking into the purported diversion of state cancer research funds to Mr. Perry’s political allies — and that Mr. Perry would appoint a successor. However, the governor acted only after the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was caught on video committing a pretty spectacular drunk driving offense that eventually cost her 45 days in jail. Many people would find it reasonable to pursue the ouster of such a person from such a position. When Ms. Lehmberg refused to go, Mr. Perry carried out his veto.
What everyone should recognize is that this particular kerfuffle fell within the bounds of partisan politics, which, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag. The grand jury, however, would criminalize Mr. Perry’s conduct by twisting the pertinent statutes into a pair of pretzels. The indictment contends that vetoing funding for Ms. Lehmberg’s unit violated a Texas “abuse of official capacity” law against the knowing “misuse” of government funds with intent to “harm another.” Even more implausibly, the indictment characterizes the mere threat of a veto as “coercion of a public servant,” even though the relevant law pretty clearly wasn’t intended to cover a governor’s exercise of his constitutional powers. By the weird logic of the indictment, Mr. Perry would have been in the clear if he had simply vetoed the funding without threatening to do so first.
This isn’t the first tendentious prosecution of a nationally prominent Texas politician: A decade ago, Ms. Lehmberg’s predecessor brought questionable campaign finance charges against then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R), which were later overturned on appeal. The criminalization of politics can happen outside the Lone Star State, too, and the targets are hardly exclusively Republicans. We also opposed the federal prosecution of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), which tried — and failed — to construe alleged hush money for his mistress as an illegal campaign contribution.
Of course, public servants should be held to a higher standard. But criminal prosecution is not always the appropriate remedy for dubious or despicable behavior by those in power, especially not where the relevant law is not clearly applicable. Political abuses call for political accountability, which is why we have media exposure, elections and impeachment. Mr. Perry is not a candidate for reelection; his term ends in a few months. Perhaps some of those in Texas who back his indictment hope to derail his reported plans for another run at the presidency in 2016. If so, they are going about it the wrong way.