Swearing to tell the whole truth
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has got himself in a bit of a Southern fried pickle. When he was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation as attorney general, he … oops … forgot that he had met with the big-as-a-Russian-bear Evil Empire’s ambassador not once, but … oy vey … twice.
Maybe, he just had a senior moment.
In any event, what has Washington’s undies in a bunch is not so much that Sessions might have done a Yablochko dance with the Soviet Bear — although that might become its own issue depending on what was said to whom and when — but that the chief federal law enforcement officer might have told the teeniest of fibs.
Back on Defense
Back in the day, when Sessions was a wee elfin senator for Alabama, then-President Bill Clinton found himself in, let’s say, an “indelicate” position. Fending off perjury claims related to the president’s infidelity with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Sen. Sessions took the opportunity to weigh in on the issue.
Styling the perjury charges against the president as “serious allegations,” the senator observed that, “In America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe no one is above the law.” Indeed. Presumably, the attorney general himself. Founded on his firm belief that veracity was a virtue in those who serve in behalf of the public weal, and a man of his convictions, Sessions also voted “guilty” on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice during Clinton’s impeachment trial.
Now, however, the brogue is on the other foot and the comparative foot size notwithstanding, the fit is not so comfortable.
Before we get to why this tempest in a teapot dome matters, let’s first put perjury under the jurisprudential microscope for a quick voyeuristic peek. But before we even get to that — and all of the moral underpinnings aside — it is key to understand that for the legal system to work properly, truth matters. If anyone can get up and spin a Garrison Keillor tale without regard for the truth, then the whole system falls apart. To paraphrase our greatest president, “a house divided from the truth cannot stand.”
Perjury is the voluntary violation of an oath or vow either by swearing to what is untrue or by omission to do what has been promised under oath. It is “false swearing.” Or to put it more succinctly, perjury consists of lying under oath.
Which begs the question of what exactly constitutes an “oath.”
An “oath” is a solemn — usually formal — calling upon God or something else holy to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says.
Connecting the dots, when one commits perjury, he is either lying after swearing on the sacred to tell the truth or else by “forgetting” to mention those parts that fail to fit the story you’d rather tell. Like forgetting that you danced the Barynya with the rather imposing Sergey Kislyak.
So when then-Sen. Sessions forgot or otherwise neglected in his confirmation hearing that he had met with Russia’s emissary on more than one occasion, the way it clearly came across is that the soon-to-be Grand Poohbah of the Department of Justice ignored the most basic precept of justice, the holiest of holies, the simple and unvarnished obligation to tell the truth. What message does this send? One rule for the rulers and another for the rest of us? Or, in the words of the elfin former Senator from Alabama, that “no one is above the law?”
The oath is front and center in judicial proceedings. Generally, it goes like this: “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Although it may not seem like it at first, there’s a lot of “there” there.
Goose for the Gander
First, the oath is given “solemnly,” soberly and earnestly. No fudging or kidding around. Next, when one delivers an oath, it is “sworn” which infers a pact with God. Third, the truth and all of it must be told. Hitting cleanup is the obligation to leave nothing out and not to intersperse fact with fiction. And then the punctuation mark is with the help of God Almighty to give you strength. Pretty powerful stuff if you dwell on it a bit.
And this is was Sessions failed to do. He raised his hand — as rigid as a rail — stood up straight as virtue, and then not only left out key parts but affirmatively offered that he had not done what he did.
Hmmm. It makes you scratch your head. Why not just fess up and get it over with? Unless the good senator conceived that there was something there to hide.
Did Sessions kill anyone? No, not that I’m aware of. But in mauling the truth, he undermined the office, undermined himself and diminished the rule of law he swore to uphold and defend. And last time he “swore,” it seemed not worth the spit he conjured up to wet this tongue. One has to wonder if the second time, he got it right.
Does it matter? Well, when he was on the other side of the table, Sen. Sessions thought so. And what’s good for the goose, I’m sure he would agree, should be just as fitting for the gander.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg, LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926.4461 or by email at Robbins@SLBLaw.com.