A Litmus Test for All Seasons?

A map view of Henrico County, VA, shows it, like a set of water wings, atop Richmond as home ground for its 325,000 residents, 59% of whom are white and 31% of whom are Black. The county’s five-person Board of Supervisors is composed of three white Republicans and two Black Democrats, closely aligning with its racial demographics. In August 2020, the county manager appointed an experienced Black chief of police to lead its 860-member Police Division. Presently, the board is considering establishment of a police civilian review board.

In the same month, a county resident was sentenced to 6 years for charges of plowing into a Black Lives Matter protest in June. The county Commonwealth’s Attorney revealed that the offender was a self-proclaimed leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Amid all of these dynamics, the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney (CA) and county manager had agreed upon the creation and funding of a new attorney position to be assigned to oversee police misconduct allegations. It is common practice for Virginia counties to share funding with the state for personnel. However, following the announcement of the hiring of a local attorney to the position, the county manager (CM) reneged by withdrawing the county’s funding, claiming that the duties were not in accord with what had been described to him by the CA. In addition, the CM cited a number of social media posts to Facebook, forwarded to him by unnamed sources, that “caused him to believe that she would not be able to maintain any objectivity in a role that requires her to judge the actions of police officers.” 

In contemporary times, it is not unusual for an employer to review the social media material of a potential employee. When that review concludes with a decision to withdraw an offer of employment, the matter rises to a higher level. Here, the social media posts became the litmus test for the hiring of an attorney for a government position. The CA stated that she had reviewed the material and concluded it was benign, in contrast to the view of the CM.

No less a partisan publication than National Review (Sept. 29, 2020) has pooh-poohed the notion of a litmus test being applied in the selection of Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Concerns have been raised about the candidate’s judicial views, particularly with respect to abortion and the ACA. The main thesis advanced by the author of the article to demonstrate the nonexistence of a litmus test on the part of the president is the fact that, in a few instances, his judicial appointments have ruled against administration positions. That disappointment was reflected in President Eisenhower’s expression that Earl Warren’s elevation to the Supreme Court was a mistake.

Litmus tests applied to the appointment or confirmation of a government official are generally deemed to be suspicious, reflecting mostly biases and prejudices often emanating from partisans. The question, of course, is whether such tests carry any validity.

Of course, National Review’s logic is specious and fallacious, since the issue of a litmus test runs to the matter of evaluating an appointee’s credentials, not the individual’s future work. Over time, judges may issue decisions that are not perfectly within the confines of the views of those favoring appointment. Whether Barrett rules one way or another on two specific legal issues is mostly speculative. Presidents may take extraordinary care in nominating federal judges, but are at the bettor’s window for judicial decisions during their tenure.

Litmus tests applied to the appointment or confirmation of a government official are generally deemed to be suspicious, reflecting mostly biases and prejudices often emanating from partisans. The question, of course, is whether such tests carry any validity. Clearly, the Henrico man who claimed to be a KKK leader would not or should not be considered as a deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. Should social media posts indicating a supportive view of Black Lives Matter be disqualifying for that position?  Does it matter that the new hire was to oversee police misconduct complaints?

While the component information underlying a litmus test may provide some grounds requiring a candidate to clarify statements, it is another matter entirely when that test is applied blindly, without context. It is clearly more egregious when that litmus test is made the conclusive basis for an employment decision. That scenario is compounded when the litmus material is surfaced anonymously and applied autocratically.

In the Henrico conflict, both parties to the initial agreement are sporting egg on their faces and engaged in a relationship that has come under a cloud of mistrust. That is a development that only exacerbates the efforts to develop a positive civic culture. It is hoped that the parties can come to a resolution.



Categories: CIVIL RIGHTS, crime and punishment, Issues, Local, prosecutors, State

Tags: , , ,

%d bloggers like this: