Alan Ehrenhalt was an executive editor of GOVERNING. He is currently the information director for the Pew Center on the States and a lecturer in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.
I used to think that, for some reason, the American judicial system was avoiding me. Over more than three decades of adult life, as a citizen of three different jurisdictions, I had never once served on a jury.
Twenty-five years ago, a mayor of Chicago was defeated for renomination because of an insult rendered by his public transit system. The city was digging out from a blizzard, and there weren't enough trains to carry all the passengers who needed service.
Early in the Nixon administration, when supporters of civil rights worried that the new president was about to follow up on the racially divisive rhetoric of his 1968 campaign, Attorney General John Mitchell sought to reassure them with a few simple words: "Don't watch what we say--watch what we do."
Fifty-eight years ago, Justice Felix Frankfurter told his brethren to stay out of the business of drawing political maps. "Courts ought not to enter this political thicket," Frankfurter warned in Colegrove v. Green. "The fulfillment of this duty cannot be judicially enforced."
1It's a cliche that there are no great Washington novels. I don't know if it's true or not. It may be. The book most often cited as a candidate, "Democracy," by Henry Adams, was written 120 years ago; in recent times, more critics probably have praised it than have read it.
There was a small news item in last month's issue of this magazine. The Business of Government section reported on a new online program in Missouri that gathers disease data from 50 labs and hospitals and tells the Health Department almost instantly if something resembling an epidemic is loose in the state.
There's something about the subject of public housing that saps the enthusiasm of even the most dutiful students of government. Self- described policy wonks who have little trouble discoursing on the Medicaid dual-eligible problem or the mass transit mode split start to fidget when anybody brings up Section 8 or Hope VI.
I remember being taught in the fourth grade that one of the few really noble elements of human nature was the willingness to put aside differences in time of crisis. It's no fairy tale, either; we've all seen it dozens of times. A river floods, or a city is devastated by an earthquake or terrorists strike without warning--and all of a sudden there's a feeling of common purpose and a suspension of petty bickering.
A few weeks ago, the Vermont Senate discussed a proposal to require that all state judges step down from office upon reaching the age of 110. This may sound like the mootest of moot points, given that no jurist in Vermont--or anywhere in the world, I imagine--has ever lived that long. But it had a purpose.
A few weeks ago, the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority descended 100 feet below ground, unfurled a huge American flag, announced the opening of a tunnel, and began scouring history for superlatives. "This project," he boasted, "rivals the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal."
Somewhere in America, I suppose, there is a public official who believes unreservedly in devolution--believes that power, autonomy and flexibility should reside as far down in the governmental system as practically possible--and is willing to act on the basis of those beliefs, even at the expense of his own political authority.