Should Anyone Be Above the Law When It Comes to Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent social ills affecting our society. Fortunately, in recent decades the progress in legal response to domestic violence has been astonishing with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the emergence of specialized and integrated domestic violence courts in 1990’s. Sadly, our legal framework still fails to deter against first offenses or prevent recidivism. Even more reprehensible is when an alleged perpetrator manages to find a way to circumvent the law.

On the evening of February 25, 2011 police responded to a call regarding a man pulling a woman out of a car in Phoenix, AZ. According to the police, he hit her and she hit him, and both showed marks of a physical altercation. Both were taken into custody. However, the two suffered dramatically different fates, and it was not because police determined that one of them was the victim while another was the perpetrator…

It turned out that the man was Scott Bundgaard, the majority leader of the Arizona State Senate. Mr. Bundgaard told Phoenix police officers that he was a state senator and cited a provision of the Arizona Constitution that gives lawmakers limited immunity from arrest. Police Department lawyers were consulted, and they ordered that Mr. Bundgaard be released. Meanwhile, the woman, Mr. Bundgaard’s girlfriend, was arrested for domestic violence and spent the night in jail.

The provision in question is the Arizona Constitution Article 4, Part 2, §4 that states that “[m]embers of the legislature shall be PRIVILEGED from arrest in all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, and they shall not be subject to any civil process during the session of the legislature, nor for fifteen days next before the commencement of each session.” (emphasis added).

Since Mr. Bundgaard is a public figure, the special treatment that he has received drew criticism from women’s groups and some of his colleagues. Subsequently, a complaint was filed with the state Senate Ethics Committee. Yet, it was dismissed a few days later for failing to comply with the state Senate rules.  Nonetheless, on March 15, 2011, Mr. Bundgaard’s colleagues ousted  him during a closed caucus.

Statutory interpretation, legislative intent, and politics aside, does an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence deserve to be treated differently because he is a lawmaker? Domestic violence does not discriminate – it happens in every community and to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Yet, it seems that the higher an alleged perpetrator is on the socioeconomic ladder, the easier it becomes to evade the consequences, at least for some time.

Sometimes mere proximity to a public figure makes one seem above the law when it comes to domestic violence, as was the case with David W. Johnson, an ex-driver turned top aide to the former New York Gov. Paterson. In the fall of 2009, Ms. Sherr-una Booker, Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend at the time requested a temporary order of protection at the Bronx Family Court, claiming that Mr. Johnson violently attacked her. Ultimately, in March of 2011, Mr. Johnson had plead guilty to harassing Ms. Booker, but only after it was revealed that his conduct was a subject of a cover up. It turned out that shortly after the incident, Gov. Paterson contacted Ms. Booker and had urged her to help him contain any political fallout stemming from this incident.

Ironically, Gov. Paterson has made domestic violence a key issue in his own career; when he was lieutenant governor, it was among his signature causes. In 2008, just a few months after taking office as governor, he signed a major expansion of New York’s domestic violence law to allow judges to issue civil protection orders against people in dating relationships, in addition to those who are married.

We salute lawmakers for making loud calls to eradicate domestic violence. We applaud when yet another justice center or bureau is established to fight domestic abuse. Unfortunately, these and other similar efforts are hypocritical when the very same people calling for action are themselves involved in the very social ill they claim to be fighting. The hypocrisy is at its worst when there is a “technicality” preventing the lawmakers from being punished for breaking the same law they or their colleagues are imposing on our society.