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Johnson '14: Keep sticking up for Rhody, Governor Chafee


The Brown community should be very proud of Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14. Despite being a supporter of President Obama, Chafee recently stood up to Obama's Justice Department to assert Rhode Island's right to handle its own criminal cases. 

The dispute is over Jason Pleau, a Woonsocket man who allegedly killed David Main in 2010. Pleau has already said that he will plead guilty to state murder charges and spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Chafee wants to try Pleau in Rhode Island state court, but the Justice Department is attempting to take Pleau's case from the state and pursue a federal sentence. Rhode Island does not have the death penalty, and while federal prosecutors have not said whether they will pursue capital punishment for Pleau, one has to wonder why else they would want the case. 

The issue here is not Mr. Pleau. He is a disgusting criminal who deserves to spend the rest of his life in a cell. His premeditated assault, robbery and murder of Main were violent, despicable and gruesome acts. 

Rather, the debate here is whether a state still has the right to try its own cases, and whether a state's stance on the death penalty still has the right to be respected. I applaud Chafee for standing up to Obama, a political ally, to defend the rights of his state. 

Chafee is the first governor in history to refuse to transfer a state prisoner to the Department of Justice, the Boston Globe reported.

Chafee told the Globe that his steadfastness comes from his belief that both other states and the federal government must recognize a state's ability to enforce its own policies enacted into law by democratically elected officials. Without strong governors like Chafee, the federal government would be able to unilaterally impose the death penalty in any case where the Justice Department wants to intervene. 

As with all situations involving federalism, the individual case is just one indication of a larger, scarier principle. Rhode Island must retain the right to punish in-state crimes by the methods its legislature approves. If not, it may start to see its other rights go away as well. If the federal government can arbitrarily impose the death penalty on a state case, who is to say the federal government could not impose stringent anti-abortion laws on a socially liberal state? For another example that may be closer to many Brown students' hearts, who is to say that the federal government could not unilaterally impose tough marijuana policies on a state like Massachusetts, where the drug is decriminalized?

In defending Rhode Island's right to not execute its criminals, Chafee has created an unlikely coalition of supporters. Conservative states'-righters and liberal, anti-death penalty activists have come to the Independent governor's side. 

As someone who is thoroughly sick of partisan dribble, I love to see an unaffiliated state leader bridging partisan gaps. I've admired Chafee's courage since he decided to run for governor as an Independent. I've admired his willingness to propose tough solutions - the man ran his gubernatorial campaign on tax increases and still managed to win. The case of Jason Pleau is yet another example of Chafee's willingness to do what is right rather than what is politically expedient. 

Chafee is far from an anti-Obama ideologue. In fact, he is a co-chair of the president's 2012 campaign. But he saw his state's rights being infringed by the Obama administration, and took action. He didn't care who was in the White House, because his responsibility is to the people of Rhode Island and not to a political party.

The importance of Chafee's independence cannot be overstated. It gives him the ability to analyze situations and do what's right, rather than what his party elders tell him is right. Chafee has shown his political integrity in more cases than just the Jason Pleau affair. While many lawmakers in Rhode Island bicker about the fiscal crisis in the state's cities and towns, Chafee has declared that he will not kick the can down the road. He has proposed serious pension reform that the Providence Journal called "a remarkably broad initiative" full of "good ideas."  

To Chafee: Keep up the good work. You are representing Brown well in the world of politics, and you are living proof that effective, non-partisan government still exists in America. 



Garret Johnson '14 suggests that after Gov. Chafee finishes reforming state pensions, he turn his attention to the Brown housing lottery.



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