Yesterday, Justice Michaela Murphy ruled in Farmington’s Superior Court that Maine’s Legislature went too far two years ago when it adopted the severe mandatory sentencing provisions of “Tina’s Law.” She ruled that to give a client I was representing a two-year prison sentence solely for driving his car when he wasn’t licensed to do so was both unconstitutionally excessive and also contrary to the basic decency which is a foundation of our legal system.
Justice Murphy’s decision will be appealed by the state, and as that expensive process unfolds, other defendants will make the same arguments again, both here in Farmington and in courts throughout the state. They will argue that while long prison sentences certainly are appropriate for many drivers who operate after their licenses have been revoked, to adopt a mandatory policy of severe sentences for an entire class of people goes too far.
These new Tina’s Law cases – and there will be many of them – will create more appeals and more expense for our dwindling state budget. Even more costly will be the fact that, as taxpayers we have just begun footing the bill to imprison many other drivers far longer than either judges or district attorneys ever wanted to in the past.
The problem with Tina’s Law is the problem with almost all mandatory minimum sentences. It’s a problem that occurs when well-meaning lawmakers react, usually to a tragedy, by thinking that they alone can fix things. It occurs mostly because our legislators make the mistake of substituting their political judgment for the job we should be trusting our judges to do.
It’s a big problem, and one we really don’t need. That’s because any driver charged with a felony habitual offender offense, even before Tina’s Law, could have been sentenced to up to FIVE years in prison if a judge thought that sentence was appropriate.
And who are these judges? They are people who, almost always after lengthy and well-respected careers as lawyers, survive a rigorous and highly competitive selection process. These judges have children and grandchildren and they live down the street. They don’t want dangerous drivers on the road any more than you do, and they have taken a sworn oath to, among other things, use the great power they have to fairly protect all of us from them.
So ask yourself this: The next time you need important legal advice, who would you rather ask – the judge who lives down the block or some representative in Augusta who understandably already has one eye on his next election? I’d go with the judge too.
So why on earth would anyone want to leave it to these very same lawmakers to solve our problems with mandatory minimum sentences that may be perfectly appropriate for some defendants, but grossly unfair to others?
It’s time for us to let judges be judges. So the next time you hear about a bill in Augusta that features mandatory minimum sentences, stop and think. If, like me, you’re currently not asking your state representative for medical advice about your bad shoulder or electrical advice about wiring that new addition you’ve got planned, maybe you’ll agree we really also ought to leave our important legal decisions to the good judges the state of Maine has.