Travis County is home to Austin, Texas and well over a million residents. The county’s district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail about 1am this morning after serving half of a 45-day sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol.
From the Austin American Statesman:
Lehmberg, who was sentenced April 19, served half of her jail term under a law that gives two days credit for every day served for good behavior. Travis county jail records no longer showed Lehmberg booked by 3 a.m. Thursday.
Predictably, in this Republican-led state there have been calls for her resignation from the right, even satirical bumper stickers that lampoon her behavior on the night of her arrest. Looking deeper, the situation is far more complex.
First, while the office of Travis County District Attorney is elected, if Lehmberg resigns than Republican Governor Rick Perry will appoint her interim replacement. But more so, many reports suggest that Lehmberg is suffering from an illness — alcoholism — which may benefit from treatment rather than further punishment.
Sources write that Lehmberg had a known drinking problem, and a Point Austin editorial in the Austin Chronicle argued for compassion and treatment over judgment:
Ours is a culture (including a cop culture) rampant with binge drinking – and it too often has deadly consequences – but if everyone who received a first-offense DWI also lost his job, the drinking wouldn’t stop, and the unemployment rolls would be staggering as well.
[O]ne can only wonder what might have happened to Bob Bullock or Ann Richards (or a host of other officials) had the Internet been available to chronicle and repost their every bibulous indiscretion. Anonymous trolls would be demanding their immediate ejections from office, and editorial writers (hardly squeaky clean themselves) would be anonymously chiming in. Yet we have long known that alcoholism is a treatable disease, and that reflexively treating alcoholics as criminals only fills our prisons without addressing the underlying problems.
Though the kind of reckless behavior Lehmberg engaged in is never acceptable, KVUE suggests that grief exacerbated her behavior:
Sources confirmed Lehmberg was distraught the night before her arrest on April 12th after attending the funeral of a dear friend and employee.
Investigator Lorraine Kerlick died in a motorcycle accident April 7th. Friends say Lehmberg appeared extremely emotional and depressed at the funeral.
As of now, Lehmberg intends to complete her term as well as seek treatment:
Lehmberg, who was released before 3 a.m. Thursday, also thanked the Travis County jail staff for their ‘professionalism and dedication’ in a statement issued shortly after 5 a.m.
‘In the coming days, Rosemary will be making arrangements to seek professional treatment and better understand her behavior,’ the statement said. ‘She will also meet with members of her staff with whom she been communicating throughout the last 3 weeks.’
Jason Stanford, in a sharply worded Statesman opinion argues the situation is representative of overall corruption in the Texas legal system:
But just because she’s a drunken mess of political entitlement doesn’t mean Lehmberg doesn’t have a role to play when she gets out of jail. The Travis County district attorney heads the Public Integrity Unit, which by law has jurisdiction over corruption in state government. Unless the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney decides to make a federal case out of something, the only one who can prosecute any of these Banana Republicans in elected state office is Lehmberg.
And if she resigns, Rick Perry gets to appoint her successor, explaining why local Democrats want her to stay on the job.
But should she? Making corruption charges stick is hard enough with one’s credibility intact. Ronnie Earle found this out when he tried to prosecute Kay Bailey Hutchison. It’s hard to imagine Lehmberg withstanding the political backlash that comes with trying to hold powerful public officials accountable. It says a lot about Texas ethics when the only check on political corruption is currently sitting in jail after pleading guilty to drunken driving.
Ken Anderson, District Attorney before Lehmberg and now a state district judge is facing charges of corruption. Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune argues that state officials are no longer untouchable:
Texas DA’s used to be indestructible. The political potshots at long-serving former prosecutors like Dallas County’s Henry Wade, Harris County’s Johnny B. Holmes Jr. and Travis County’s Ronnie Earle were part of their jobs. But each left on his own.
Times have changed. In the 1980s, crime was the major issue in many local and state elections. In the early 1990s, the people who won those elections went on an epic prison- and jail-building spree.
Voters are worried about other things now. Wrongful convictions and prosecutions have shaken public faith in the criminal justice system.
And, it turns out, in the people at the top.
Update: The Austin-area coordinator of the Texas Department of Public Safety resigned today after a DUI arrest.