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Injustice in the Massachusetts House of Representatives

Melvin B. Miller | 2/12/2014, 10:46 a.m.

With a vote of 146-5, the Massachusetts House of Representatives expelled Carlos Henriquez. More than likely that vote is unconstitutional.

Once a representative is elected by the people, House rules cannot summarily repudiate the results of elections. There must be a sound justification for an expulsion to pass constitutional muster. African Americans have been battling the improper exclusion from office of their elected officials since Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was denied his seat in Congress on Feb. 28, 1967.

Henriquez was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of a domestic violence charge brought by a female acquaintance. It was an unseemly but private matter. What political mischief could ensue if it were possible to remove from office legislators with misdemeanor convictions that are totally unrelated to their official duties.

The House Ethics Committee unanimously decided that Henriquez was in violation of Rule 16A(1), which states in part that members of the House

“Should exercise prudence in any and all such endeavors and make every reasonable effort to avoid transactions, activities, or obligations, which are in substantial conflict with or will substantially impair their independence of judgment.”

It is clear from earlier segments of 16A(1) that the purpose of the rule is to establish ethical standards for members pursuing other commercial or professional employment.

Somehow the committee has made the rule applicable through a convoluted rationale. Since Judge Michele Hogan, who heard the case, has sentenced Henriquez to two and a half years with six months to be served, the committee opined that his time in jail will be “in substantial conflict” with Henriquez’s ability to provide his “independence of judgment” on behalf of his constituents.

The absurdity of this conclusion becomes clear when one considers that Henriquez will most likely be released in four months or so, and will then be available to resume his seat in the House. That is too short a time to have an effective interim election. New candidates would have too little time to introduce themselves to the electorate before it would be time to go to the polls.

The fact is that if Judge Hogan had not decided to make an example of Henriquez, a first time offender, to benefit the issue of women’s rights, members of the House would have no legal basis at all to oust Henriquez. Hogan’s decision to incarcerate demonstrates a callous disregard for the disparate rate of imprisonment of black men.

With the incarceration of Henriquez, Hogan contributed to the woeful statistic of injustice for black men involved with the criminal justice system. According to several studies, blacks are jailed at almost six times the rate of whites. While drug use is relatively equivalent between blacks and whites, blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. And blacks serve as much time in prison for drug offenses as whites do for violent crimes.

Clearly, America has two serious social problems: the physical abuse of women and the unjust imprisonment of black men. Apparently, Hogan believes that intensifying injustice to black men benefits the cause of abused women. And, in a blatant appeal for the women’s vote, politicians have crassly supported Henriquez’s removal from office. One wonders how a black, a Latino or any individual committed to justice could support Henriquez’s unconstitutional ouster from his elected office in the Great and General Court. The voters in his district should decide his fate in the next election.