RALEIGH – Bev Perdue is the first North Carolina governor to make extensive use of the veto power to challenge major policy initiatives from the General Assembly. By this time next year, Perdue may also be the first modern North Carolina governor to lose a reelection bid.
If the latter comes about, it will partly be due to the former.
Obviously, Gov. Perdue’s biggest political problem is the persistent weakness of the North Carolina economy. After years of double-digit unemployment, Perdue would be an underdog for reelection regardless of what fights she chose to pick with the Republican legislature.
But in my view Perdue has worsened rather than strengthened her political position by vetoing legislation that is generally popular among North Carolina voters but unpopular among the left-wing base of the Democratic Party. This may not be the conventional wisdom in Raleigh political circles, but let’s face it: those circles are disproportionately filled with left-wingers who agree with Perdue’s vetoes on policy grounds.
On Wednesday, the governor vetoed just-enacted changes to the Racial Justice Act that would have essentially closed the door to endless appeals by death-row inmates based not on actual evidence of racial bias during their trials but on broad statistical claims about the fairness of the North Carolina justice system as a whole.
Because Perdue had signed the original Racial Justice Act two years ago, it’s understandable why she chose to veto the measure in question. While not technically a repeal, it certainly thwarted the act’s real purpose – the perpetuation of a de facto moratorium on capital punishment.
Still, I think the governor’s decision was unwise on both substantive and political grounds.
On substance, the problem is that to make a statistical assertion of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty is not to prove that racial bias affected the fate of any given criminal. In fact, the available data do not even establish that the racial disparities apparent in the statistics – the finding that killers of white victims are more likely to receive death sentences than killers of black victims are, for example – are the result of illegal or discriminatory actions on anyone’s part.
Capital murders are, by the very nature of their definition, rare events from which it is hard to generalize. Many factors contribute to the decisions of prosecutors to seek the death penalty and of jurors to apply it. The academic researchers responsible for the statistical-disparity studies may think they have controlled for all other variables that might explain why some killers are more likely to get the death penalty than others, but there is good reason to doubt this. Nor does it help their credibility on this question that virtually all the researchers who have produced these studies appear to be personally opposed to capital punishment. That’s their prerogative, just as it is mine to remain unconvinced by their work to date.
Even if the statistical disparity proved the existence of illegality or discrimination somewhere in the criminal justice, however, that would only be grounds for additional reforms. It does not constitute evidence that a particular murderer has been unfairly sentenced. Death-row inmates already have options for appellate relief should there be evidence of misconduct in their own cases. The reason the Racial Justice Act exists is that inmates and their attorneys have been unable to produce such evidence.
Add to all this the possibility, however remote, that some killers could be paroled under the Racial Justice Act, and you have substantive grounds for saying no.
The political argument is simply this: Perdue’s reelection prospects are not strengthened by leftward lurches. Whatever discontent there may be among liberal Democrats, they are going to turn out in 2012 for President Obama, if no one else. Most will vote for Perdue at the same time. Her real problem is among centrist swing voters.
By using the veto pen to position herself for tax increases, for ObamaCare, against voter ID, and now against the restoration of the death penalty, Perdue is steadily alienating the very moderate Democrats and independents she needs to rebuild an electoral majority.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.