The March 6 primary election is right around the corner with early voting beginning Tuesday. One issue fellow McLennan County voters will do well to examine carefully is fundamental honesty and integrity in government. At the most basic level, we don’t want our elected leaders putting their fingers into the public treasury — outright corruption. That goes without saying. But we should demand even more. We should want — and expect — the execution of all functions of our elected government to be consistent with the rules of the road. Citizens are expected to obey the law; so must our public officials. They should set shining examples of scrupulous adherence to the law and principles of integrity.

These general reflections have been brought home to me in recent months with troubling reports from around the country of innocent people having their criminal convictions overturned — on the basis of those individuals’ actual factual innocence. These fellow citizens were wrongly charged, unjustly convicted. Years ago, my wife Alice and I became involved in the Innocence Project based in New York. It leads a brave and ofttimes lonely fight against the scourge of wrongful convictions. Not only as a citizen but as a lawyer I have engaged in battling for the innocence of individuals wrongly caught up in the criminal justice system. I will always remember my time at a UCLA conference visiting with a woman who languished on California’s death row for more than two decades. In the fullness of time, she was exonerated — and not on what some might dismiss as a legal technicality. She had not committed the gravely serious crime that sent her to death row. The investigators and prosecutors got it terribly wrong. So did the jury.

Not long after our March primary here in Texas, I will participate in a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center. Its founder, leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist Frank Quattrone, was wrongly convicted of securities-related offenses in federal district court in New York. He was innocent. I was honored to serve as a member of Frank’s defense team on appeal. Thankfully, in reversing his conviction and restoring his good name, the federal court of appeals in New York excoriated the federal prosecutors for their despicably unprofessional handling of Frank’s case. The prosecutors had been intoxicated by their overwhelming desire to bring down one of the most successful financial wizards of the day.

These recurring issues came home to me in a profound way during my tenure at Baylor University. One local conviction of a Baylor student-athlete brought searing national scrutiny to the university that Alice and I came quickly to love (and still do). That headline-grabbing conviction was later reversed by a unanimous state court of appeals, speaking through Chief Justice Tom Gray. The basis of the reversal by three appellate judges was that the trial judge here in Waco had erroneously excluded exculpatory evidence. That’s legal jargon for this: Evidence that tended to prove the young defendant’s actual innocence had been kept from the jury.

In our country, no one who is innocent should be charged with a crime in the first place. They should emphatically not be subjected to a trial where their cries of innocence are not even permitted to go before the jury for evaluation. These are the kinds of gut-wrenching issues — basic integrity and professionalism in the operation of government — that deserve local voters’ careful consideration before “We the people” go to the polls.

In the corridors of the Innocence Project in New York City, the freedom-seeking staff refers to the suffering of the wrongfully convicted as “the stolen years.” Years of life are taken from them, never to be replaced. The record is 39 years — a now-middle-aged man named Ricky Jackson, convicted in Ohio of murder at age 18. He was factually innocent, exonerated finally when he was 57. Virtually his entire adult life had been stolen from him.

Honest government means everyone in power abides by the rules. And for prosecutors, one of the most compelling principles that should guide their public service is that innocent people should not be charged in the first place and, if charged, they should not be convicted if the grand jury erred in not having all relevant evidence before it. That is, the charges should be dismissed and a solemn and sincere apology extended for having blundered in a way inimical to human freedom and dignity.

That value of basic integrity is captured in a dictum carved into the wooden paneling adorning the offices of the Attorney General of the United States: “The United States wins its case whenever justice is done one of its citizens in the courts.” Note the goal — not successful prosecutions but the achievement of justice. When I served as chief of staff to the Attorney General during the Reagan administration, I not only frequently pondered those words, I pointed them out to visitors to the Attorney General’s offices that overlooked Constitution Avenue.

Justice. That iconic street Constitution Avenue in our nation’s capital could be renamed “Justice.” That is, after all, the overarching goal of public service, a principle grounded in the sacred teachings of Scripture and trumpeted in the Preamble to America’s Constitution, the longest-standing constitution in the world. In the founding document’s opening words, “We the People” identified the core functions of the federal government. The very first governmental function identified — even before “providing for the common defense” — is “to establish justice.” The reason for the founding generation’s structural set of priorities isn’t hard to discern: If a society has not established justice, there’s nothing worth defending.

As voters, we should demand our elected officials abide by the law — including the bedrock principles of fairness at the heart of our system of justice. And we should recoil with indignation when the overarching goal of the criminal justice system becomes conviction at any cost. That’s not what America — or Texas — stands for. It’s not what the brave defenders of the Alamo — who fell on March 6 so long ago — would want for Texas.

When we go to the polls on March 6 or before, we should indeed remember the Alamo. And we should remember that the entire edifice of government — the bastion and protector of freedom — is designed to serve the mighty cause of justice for all the people. That’s what we say in the Pledge of Allegiance — liberty and justice for all. And that’s what we should remember when we cast our ballots in the days to come.

Legal scholar Ken Starr is a former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general and former president and chancellor of Baylor University.

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