As I’ve been telling at least one anonymous commenter (who is pretending that his or her mind wasn’t already made up about my integrity), my practice in commenting on the personal-life scandals of local elected officials in either party has been to demure until there is something more closely related to policy or governance. That opportunity has arisen in the case of Coventry Republican Senator Nicholas Kettle, oddly enough, as an expression of agreement with the Rhode Island ACLU.
Kettle finds himself under scrutiny for two apparently separate matters. One of them is the alleged sharing of “nude” pictures of his now-ex-girlfriend with a friend of his, who is alleged to have reciprocated with photos of his wife. As details unfold, we’ll see whether this abuse of modern technology amounted to a crime, but if even a mild version of the events is true, the senator is no longer worthy of political support.
The other matter involves some kind of statement or statements that the senator made to a page working in his legislative chamber, who may or may not have been his friend and who ran a losing campaign against him some time between the alleged incident and now. On this question, the public doesn’t have enough information to draw any conclusions at all.
Nonetheless, the Rhode Island Senate lurched immediately to start the process of kicking Kettle out of his elective seat, and that’s where I have to agree with the ACLU, whose statement Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio tweeted out:
The presumption of innocence remains a fundamental component of our criminal justice system, and while the same standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” may not necessarily also apply to a setting like a Senate’s consideration for expelling a member, it is nonetheless worth emphasizing that Sen. Kettle has been charged with, not convicted of, these crimes.
In short, while the Constitution clearly gives the Senate the power to establish the rules for punishing its members, it is a power that must be exercised cautiously and with care lest the mere fact that a sitting member has been charged with any crime can serve as the basis for removal, or a duly-elected Senator can be expelled without any opportunity to contest the basis for his expulsion.
The ACLU is correct with respect to Kettle’s rights, as a citizen, but I’d put my emphasis on an even more important point: The Rhode Islanders in his district elected Kettle. To expel him over a mere allegation and criminal charge, especially without a rigorous process over weeks or months, would be a violation of their rights.
It wouldn’t just set a precedent, as the ACLU avers, that arrest might lead to the expulsion of any senator, but it would also raise justified concerns that the process would be used in a one-sided, wholly political way. Let’s not forget, for example, that Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a Democrat from North Providence, was arrested in 2012 for drunk driving, when he was the Senate Majority Leader.
While some process should exist for a legislative body to reject a member in extreme cases, the most disturbing aspect of Ruggerio’s intention to oust a member of the opposition party is the confirmation that our elected officials have their understanding of government backwards. Our elected officials hold their offices at our pleasure, not at the pleasure of the other political insiders in the State House. It is not our duty to find a representative whom they find acceptable; rather, it is their duty to accept whomever we might send.
As distasteful as we may find the behaviors of which Kettle has been accused, we should be absolutely repulsed by the idea that the people who claim power to create laws that take our money and put us in jail might have forgotten that.