Weekly Letter: Governing and The Law

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I had this week’s letter done on Wednesday, so that it could be published at 6pm Thursday, as it is most weeks. The topic was comprehensive rezoning in a third of the county, the prospect of my first vetoes as County Executive, and thoughts about how we engage in the process when we love where we live. My staff approved, and it was scheduled to send.

But Thursday was Independence Day, the day we commemorate informing the King of England that we were subjects no more. The day that we chose to create our own government and elect our own leaders, leaders who would be subject to the same laws as the rest of us.

All day, I reflected on Monday’s surprise ruling by the United States Supreme Court, the ruling that creates a new American doctrine of presidential immunity from the law. Historians and legal scholars have noted all week that this radical new doctrine was an undoing of a basic principle that our country was founded on, the principle that we are governed not by kings, but by laws, laws made by our own legislative bodies.

This may seem outside the scope of my weekly letters, but I believe it’s locally relevant, more relevant than comprehensive rezoning. So I started over.

The Court majority wrote that immunity was necessary to allow presidents to do bold things. Historians remind us that American presidents have managed to do bold things for nearly 250 years without immunity from the law.

But if the Court is correct that effective government relies on the immunity of its leader, it follows that the same is true for leaders of state and local governments. That gets my attention, and probably yours.

I’ll be honest. One of the most frustrating things about being a County Executive is the law. It’s cumbersome, and it gets in the way of what I consider progress. 

People think I can stop development projects from being approved, or that I can approve them. Legally, I can do neither.

The same is true of firing non-exempt staff without due cause, accepting gifts valued over $25, spending money that is not budgeted, and lots more. In fact, two of the ten people who have served as Anne Arundel County Executive have gone to jail for illegal acts performed while in office. On my first visit to Ordnance Road Correctional Center, I joked to the staff there that I have a 20% chance of becoming an inmate.

Even with those odds, I like the system as it works today. Rather than break the laws I disagree with, I do exactly what I suggest to our residents who complain about unfair laws. I work to change them. I use the power of my office - the limited power - to lobby our County Council, our Maryland General Assembly, and our United States Congress. I look for allies, build coalitions, and organize. And I’m not alone. It’s what all county executives, mayors, governors, and presidents do, because we accept that this is a nation governed by laws, and that none of us are immune.

The Supreme Court’s decision in TRUMP V. UNITED STATES was a shock to the left, to the right, and to the disengaged. Fox News called it blockbuster, and MSNBC called it terrifying.

For the good people of Anne Arundel County and Americans everywhere who gather each year to celebrate our independence from rule by a king, this is our moment.

I for one will choose the cumbersome rule of law, our law, the law that no man or woman is above. I trust that you’ll join me, while choice is still an option.

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive