A judge’s ruling that Charlottesville city councilors are not personally liable for their decision in the Confederate statues case should surprise no one.
It was the right call.
In our democracy, it is not a crime to vote for policies that are unpopular with some constituents.
As part of a complex suit over the council’s decision to remove two statues of Confederate generals, plaintiffs claimed that the vote attempted to override state law and therefore, under a Virginia statute that punishes grave dereliction of public duty, the councilors who voted to remove the statues were legally liable as individuals — not just politically accountable as a government body.
Judge Richard E. Moore already had ruled on the issue regarding the statues themselves. State law prohibits removing or damaging war memorials, and the judge had concurred that the Charlottesville statues were indeed protected by that state law.
Plaintiffs had argued that this was enough to trip another state law, one holding officials personally liable for egregious abuses of public trust.
If officials are individually liable as well as accountable as a public body, so goes the theory, then the threat of facing a personal lawsuit should work mightily to stop them from abusing their positions and mistreating the public.
But, again, that form of threat and punishment applies only for serious misdeeds. Otherwise, public officials are protected by the legal principle of indemnity.
When officials are acting in good faith in the service of the public, they are granted some leeway if they make honest mistakes along the way.
And it’s a good thing, too. Serving as a public official is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. If officials were held accountable as individuals for every action taken as a public entity, whether an honest mistake or a politically unpopular choice, no one would ever agree to serve. The personal risk would be too high.
A practical, working democracy depends on the understanding that leaders will make errors, but should be accountable for those errors only publicly and politically — not personally and individually, except in the most serious of cases.
Did the City Council’s decision to remove the statues in the face of a state law that seemed to prohibit such action rise to the level of a serious dereliction of duty?
To some people, the law clearly protected Confederate statues, along with others, as war memorials — but it took the court case to establish that fact for certain.
Once it was determined that the statues were protected, a second question was whether the council’s vote in opposition to the law constituted the type of egregious action envisioned by the state code when allowing for the possibility of holding public officials personally accountable.
For several reasons, Judge Moore decided that the vote did not rise to that level. The protection of indemnity applied.
Remember: Without that common-sense concept, a citizen-based democracy could not function. Officials should not be personally responsible for every decision made as a public body, nor should they be personally responsible for simple errors of judgment. Public servants are bound to make such errors — especially since most elected officials come from the ranks of the private citizenry and have to learn by experience how to negotiate the complexities of governance.
Nor should public officials be subject to legal action against them personally for decisions that are politically unpopular. Without indemnity, they could be subjected to lawsuits intended solely to intimidate or exact political revenge — a dangerous state of affairs.
If elected officials make too many errors of judgment, the remedy is to vote them out of office. If they make too many politically unpopular decisions … the remedy is to vote them out of office.
As the law says, only if they make egregious errors or take deliberately illegal actions should sterner consequences apply.