Take the next step

Published 9:09 pm Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In light of the growing national trend of activist judges stepping outside of their constitutional bounds to make decisions aimed at setting policies, it was refreshing to learn last week that two Suffolk judges refused to get involved in a controversy on the local Electoral Board without proper direction from the right place.

When the City Council asked Circuit Court judges Rodham T. Delk Jr. and Carl Edward Eason Jr. to investigate an inappropriate email sent by an Electoral Board member to a former voter registrar, there must have been some temptation to get involved.

There has been no dispute that Electoral Board Secretary David Sylvia sent ex-registrar Sharon Thornhill a sexually provocative email entitled “14 Steps to Putting on a Bikini.” There’s no dispute that Sylvia was in a supervisory position over Thornhill at the time, nor over the fact that she was either fired or forced to resign after she mentioned the email in a performance evaluation several months later.

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The Circuit Court judges must have realized just how poisonous the work environment might seem for any new woman hired to do the job that Thornhill left open. And there would have been a strong tendency to want to weigh in on the situation in an attempt to clear the air in that important agency. It might even have felt like the just thing to do.

But justice often requires a careful attention to process, and in the case of the dustup in the voter registrar’s office, the process turns out to be a vital factor in the attainment of justice. Suffolk’s City Council, though rightly aghast at the situation, has no legal standing to ask the judges to investigate. Such an investigation, according to state code, must be requested by a majority of the members of the State Board of Elections, which helps to guarantee that local political considerations do not jeopardize the objectivity of the registrar’s office.

The next step for the council is to draft a letter to the state board outlining the facts as they have been made public and asking for the commonwealth’s intervention in the pursuit of a local Electoral Board that is beyond reproach. The letter should ask that the board seek the dismissal of Sylvia and any other Electoral Board member who knew about the inappropriate actions and did not act in a way that would have protected the dignity of the board and its employees.

When it gets that letter, the State Board of Elections should waste little time in following the process that would legally and justifiably set the Circuit Court’s investigation in motion. There’s little question where such an investigation would lead, but it would compound travesty upon indignity if it were done outside of its lawful authority.