Once upon a time, in a Philadelphia not so far away, Arlen Specter had aspirations for higher office as an assistant district attorney. People vote with their guts, as opposed to cerebral gumption, and so the stepping stones thereto require the usual encomiums to law and order, and a toothy resolve to be tough on crime.
Ed Rendell had MOVE. Lynne Abraham had Ira Einhorn and Mumia Abu Jamal, and gnawed every last bit of marrow out of them, too. Seth Williams’ tenure is a balanced application of reason and resources – ridding our city of, say, the hornet’s nest of Mumia appeals, or petty marijuana prosecutions – because Philadelphia’s electorate is as enlightened and progressive as ever. He’ll be going places.
Yet, the fawning necrologies of the past week neglect the district attorney that Arlen Specter used to be, and the prosecutions he chose to advance his career. “Arlen Specter’s roots inspired tolerance” ran the Washington Post; “Specter’s roots fueled centrism” said the Seattle Times. The vast majority of them would have you believe that Specter was immaculately conceived at the Warren Commission in 1964, and didn’t reappear until the Anita Hill debacle of 1991.
None of them mentioned how the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – a man largely responsible for seating the final arbiters of constitutional law on our Supreme Court – got his start by prosecuting Robin’s Books for selling Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
To be fair, when Specter was inaugurated on January 3, 1966, the prosecution had been well under way courtesy of James Crumlish, his predecessor – but Specter had long been an assistant D.A. at that point. When the case was argued in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on January 14th of that year, just eleven days later, Specter and his administration would have been well acquainted with the case, and well aware of the extraordinary censorship they were advocating.
Save your objections of moral propriety and the social mores of the era, because not a single advancement in the human condition has ever been laid at the doorstep of such conservative malarkey. The fact is, in his first elected position, Arlen Specter advocated for the suppression of free speech. See it for yourself: Commonwealth v. Robin’s Books, 421 Pa. 70, 218 A.2d 546 (Decision issued March 22, 1966).
It remains a surly springboard, to be sure, for his tenure as District Attorney, and one notorious for selective prosecution (Specter, for example, was known to defer filing indictments in order to compel political concessions from influential Democrats).
His passing should be a reminder of the importance of the electoral choices we make, particularly in an age where nuance is slaughtered at the altar of simplistic headlines. Remember that a politician’s avarice, as much as his virtue, can be judged by the issues they effectuate. You should know about them. Only then, in hindsight or in the electoral booth, can your judgment truly be your own.
— Conor Corcoran
Here at Philebrity, we are no strangers to reaching for the telephone in a cold sweat, fingers trembling in fear, punching in a few numbers and asking as soon as someone answers, asking “Fuck! Are we gonna get sued for this?” Always, on the end of the other line is one Conor Corcoran, Esq., our resident go-to guy for all things scary and legal. Read more of his missives to Philebrity here.