It’s not enough to simply invoke the Constitution

July 31, 2012

Before taking his oath of office as president of the United States, George Washington wrote, “I should consider myself as entering upon an unexplored field, enveloped on every side with clouds and darkness.”

What an odd comment, I thought. Yes, he was the first president of a brand-new nation, but at least he had the Constitution as a guide.

And he had to know exactly what the Founding Fathers meant when they outlined the powers of the office, because he was there. He had presided over the Constitutional Convention only two years before.

But as Ron Chernow makes clear in his superb biography, “Washington: A Life,” the first president had good reason for trepidation.

While the Constitution was clear in some areas - the president was commander in chief of the Army and the Navy, he could appoint ambassadors and Supreme Court judges - it was vague on details.

(Among Washington’s more unheralded achievements was how well he made the presidency work in practice. Not that it was a smooth ride. Far from it.)

Chernow even recounts an episode where Washington asked Madison what a portion of the Constitution meant.

How extraordinary! The men who produced the Constitution weren’t always sure themselves what it meant, and they often argued about it.

Compare that to today’s politicians (and yes, I’m getting to a local, modern political point).

Sheriff Jeff Christopher and his supporters invariably cite the Delaware Constitution as the source for his claim to full police powers.


Here’s what the state Constitution says about the office of sheriff. It describes the sheriff as a “conservator of the peace.” That’s it.

The U.S. Constitution may be hazy about the scope of presidential powers, but compared to the Delaware Constitution’s treatment of the sheriff’s role, it’s a detailed job description. (The phrase “conservator of the peace” has been used to describe a variety of officials and has never been defined.)

This doesn’t bother Christopher. Unlike Washington, he betrays no hesitancy in asserting his powers.

My point is not that the state constitution prohibits the sheriff from becoming the chief law enforcement officer of the county.

It’s that people who want the sheriff to assume that role have to make the case for it. They have to persuade the citizens that it’s in their interest to, in effect, create a county police force.

According to a county report, creating a 100-person police force - much smaller than New Castle County’s 400-person department - would cost nearly $14 million and result in a 100 percent tax increase.

Who wants that? My guess is, nobody.

But if you want a county police force, that’s the case you have to make. Merely invoking the state constitution and assuming your opponents have to bend to your will doesn’t cut it.

Sheriff’s charge of political retaliation doesn’t hold water

On the subject of the sheriff, I wanted to return briefly to the hearing for Sheriff Deputy Ismael Torres Jr., whom the county terminated for falsifying his daily log to qualify for overtime pay.

Among the side issues at Torres’s hearing was a serious charge: Sheriff Christopher said that because he had bucked the county government, Administrator Todd Lawson had retaliated by not replacing two departing deputies, thus jeopardizing the timely delivery of important court documents.

It certainly sounded plausible - political payback, the oldest story in the book.

But one of the more arresting - so to speak - exchanges of the hearing provides a different explanation.

Torres’s attorney Julieanne Murray had Karen Brewington, Sussex County human resources director, on the stand.

Earlier, the county had provided GPS evidence demonstrating that Torres wasn’t working as many hours as he claimed. One of the most amazing statistics: During one eight-week period, Torres’s car had been left idling for a staggering 143 hours. That adds up to more than three and a half 40-hour workweeks.

And yet, according to testimony, Torres had not been behind schedule delivering court papers.

Murray called on Brewington to explain this apparent contradiction. “If Deputy Torres is messing around and cheating the county of time, how did he stay current [delivering the court documents]?”

Brewington said simply, “I can’t answer that.”

She declined to supply the obvious explanation, which I will offer here: Torres was able to keep up with his workload - despite working fewer than 40 hours a week - because there wasn’t that much work to do.

Which means the county had no reason to replace the deputies until it was clearly necessary.

Sometimes what appears to be political payback may just be prudent management of taxpayer money.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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