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Editorial: Hart panel must defend integrity, credibility

The chairman of the House Ethics Committee in the Idaho Legislature has promised that its examination of Rep. Phil Hart’s behavior will be done “by the book.”

One would hope so.

But Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, may have stressed the point just in case anyone suspects that:

A. The process is all theatrics, and lawmakers will overlook Hart’s abuse of the legislative privilege that’s spelled out in Article III of the Idaho Constitution, or

B. The committee, knowing the public is watching, will find a way to spank the Athol Republican for appearance’s sake, regardless of whether he was technically within his rights.

What the committee has to decide – by the book – is whether Hart exploited his status as a state lawmaker to buy extra time in his anti-tax battles with the state.

Like many constitutions, Idaho’s protects members of the Legislature from any underhanded executive branch that might use its law enforcement authority to disrupt legislative activity. The concept dates back at least to the 1688 English Bill of Rights when the crown was not always above such mischief.

Except for treason, felony or breach of the peace, lawmakers are exempt from arrest or “civil process” during a legislative session and the 10 days that precede it. The website FindLaw, in an examination of the federal Constitution’s similar provision, calls it nearly obsolete and contends it applies narrowly to arrests in civil cases, not criminal cases and not matters of process.

Nevertheless, four times during his six years in the House, most recently last fall, Hart has employed that protection to escape procedural requirements that ordinary citizens must obey. Procedural requirements of his own making, we should add.

Hart has battled both state and federal governments over his personal belief that income taxes are unconstitutional. Like uncounted tax protesters before him, he lost those skirmishes – and relied on his legislative privilege to prolong the time he had to appeal beyond the deadline set by law. He was not being harassed by the crown, or the governor, to interfere with his ability to do his legislative duty.

While Hart’s tax clashes continue, the ethical questions surrounding his conduct are appropriately before the Ethics Committee. That bipartisan panel’s task is to defend the Legislature’s integrity and sustain the public’s confidence.

In the end, the question might not be what the Idaho Constitution allows, archaic as it may be, but what the House’s own rules condone. If a fair examination determines that Hart’s actions are permitted, he should be excused.

But the rules should be changed.


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