I don’t think I’ve seen a Tab cola since my grandmother died in 1995, but I saw one on Tuesday.
Like most southern grandparents, mine always had a case of glass bottle soft drinks in the carport, Coca-Cola for Papa and Tab, the first diet drink, for Grandma. I thought that Tab had gone the way of New Coke until I saw retired Judge Byron Smith sipping on one on Tuesday from the bench as he listened to commissioners John Ambrose and Larry Evans feud at an ethics hearing.
I am glad that Judge Smith, who’s from Barnesville, still hears cases. He’s one of the more entertaining judges I’ve ever watched in action, and we’ve got some colorful ones here in Monroe County.
Smith apparently has a wide collection of humorous stories from his days on the bench in Middle Georgia. He presided in a murder case in Forsyth many years ago and old Forsyth attorney A.M. Zellner, then in his 90s, was appointed to represent the accused. Zellner was so old, the court appointed Forsyth attorneys Franklin Freeman and Charlie Haygood to help him.
As the story goes, back then, a defendant in a murder case could make a final statement at the end without being subjected to cross examination from eager prosecutors.
So the hapless defendant took the stand and began giving his, umm, curious version of things. Freeman and Haygood, then young attorneys, were alarmed, and asked Zellner whether they should cut short their client and his string of lies.
“Lying is a sin and abomination before the Lord,” deadpanned the elder Zellner, “but in a time of need, it can be a very useful thing.”
Soon after, a Monroe County jury acquitted Zellner’s client.
We don’t know whether anyone was lying in Judge Smith’s courtroom on Tuesday, but he did point out that no one was under oath since it wasn’t really a legal hearing. Rather, it was the first hearing under the county’s new ethics ordinance.
Ambrose told the judge that Evans lashed out at him because he was upset, in part, that Ambrose wanted to make public the report on Evans’ alleged harassment of a county department head for failing to hire his favored candidate. Smith seemed genuinely surprised that commissioners and county attorney Ben Vaughn had refused to make that report public. Welcome to the club, Judge Smith.
Alas, he ruled that Ambrose didn’t prove his case that Evans had violated the ethics ordinance.
But he also seemed unimpressed by the county’s new ethics rules. Noting that it calls for another panel to consider his decision, Smith said that wasn’t going to happen.
“If I make a determination, it’s not passed on to anybody,” Smith said. “I make a determination, that’s it. . . I’ve been doing this a long, long time. I don’t turn things over to somebody else to make a conclusion. I make it, and that’s it.”
Smith seemed to understand that no ethics ordinance could solve the conflict between the two commissioners.
“How are y’all going to function with county business if y’all can’t have a meeting without someone jumping down someone’s throat? How are y’all going to get things done?”
It’s a good question, but it also underscores the brilliance of American self-government. Our founders created a political system of shared power where politicians and levels and branches of government compete for power, sometimes nastily. And when they’re doing that, it means they’re leaving us alone.
So the county’s new ethics law is not only silly, it’s unnecessary. Our founders already gave us a solution for a divided and acrimonious government. It’s called the next election. And if voters keep the warring parties in there to harass each other, instead of the taxpayers, maybe the voters are smarter than we think.