Gazette editorial baselessly claimed "grandstanding" judge gave Libby stiff sentence

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

The Gazette of Colorado Springs asserted in a July 4 editorial that U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton imposed a 30-month prison term on former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby out of a "desire ... to be the talk of the Washington cocktail circuit." In fact, numerous media outlets have reported on Walton's longstanding "reputation for ... stiff sentences." Furthermore, special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald argued that sentencing guidelines called for a 30- to 37-month sentence.

In a July 4 editorial supporting President Bush's July 2 decision to commute former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, The Gazette of Colorado Springs made the unsubstantiated claim that the judge in the trial was motivated in part by "a desire ... to be the talk of the Washington cocktail circuit" when he "slapped Libby with a stiff prison sentence." In fact, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton -- a Bush appointee -- has a "reputation for handing down stiff sentences," according to the Associated Press. Furthermore, in his response to Bush's comment that the sentence was "excessive," special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald stated that Libby's "sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to the laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country."

As Colorado Media Matters has noted (here and here), The Gazette in previous editorials has made numerous false and misleading statements about the Libby case.

The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby was found guilty on March 6 of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators about his role in the leak of Valerie Plame's covert CIA identity. The Gazette suggested that Walton acted irresponsibly when on June 5 he sentenced Libby to 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine.

From the editorial "Happy Independence Day, Mr. Libby" in the July 4 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs:

Freedom will taste especially sweet to Lewis "Scooter" Libby this Independence Day, even if President Bush's commuting of the former White House aide's prison sentence for perjury leaves a bad taste in many mouths. Libby made misjudgments, but the impact of these misdeeds on national security and the rule of law have been overblown by partisan witch hunters. And a president already reviled by the screw-Scooter crowd has little to lose, political speaking, for doing the right thing.

[...]

He lost his job. His name and reputation have been permanently tarnished. That's penalty enough, under the circumstances. But a grandstanding federal judge, carried away by a desire to "send a message" and to be the talk of the Washington cocktail circuit, slapped Libby with a stiff prison sentence. The president, in a laudable act of loyalty and mercy, commuted the sentence, sparing Libby and his family further indignity.

But contradicting the Sentinel's assertion that the judge's decision to hand Libby "a stiff prison sentence" was "grandstanding," the Associated Press reported that prior to the Libby sentence, Bush had valued the judge for his sternness at sentencing:

WASHINGTON -- President Bush knew what he was getting in 2001 when he made Reggie B. Walton one of his first picks for a seat on the federal bench: a tough-on-crime judge with a reputation for handing down stiff sentences.

A former deputy drug adviser, federal prosecutor and Superior Court judge, Walton seemed a perfect fit for the new president. And Walton didn't disappoint, proving to be exactly the kind of no-nonsense judge Bush was looking for.

Until now.

When erasing former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case, Bush said Walton was being too harsh.

Bloomberg News similarly reported that Walton is "known for tough sentences and stern lectures for the powerful and nonpowerful alike" and that "[t]hose who know Judge Walton, 58, say they weren't surprised at the sentence." The Los Angeles Times also reported on Walton's reputation for toughness, and the value that Bush had placed on it:

Washington -- Years ago, when he was a local trial judge, Reggie Walton developed a reputation for his sentencing of ordinary street thugs.

"If you got convicted, he was going to smack you," said Randall Eliason, a former prosecutor who recalled that Walton often would sentence defendants more harshly than other judges would.

[...]

That Walton would put the Bush administration in an uncomfortable position of having to consider a politically charged pardon for Libby is highly ironic: The 58-year-old jurist was one of the first appointments President Bush made to the federal bench in October 2001, a prime example of a new law-and-order mentality that the administration wanted to infuse in the courts.

"Bush wanted people to know that 'I appoint tough guys to the bench,' " said Roscoe Howard, the U.S. attorney in Washington during Bush's first term. "They appointed him just for what he did to Scooter; they were just not expecting it to happen to Scooter."

[...]

Despite Walton's history as a "long-ball hitter" when it comes to sending criminals to jail, lawyers and legal experts said the punishment he imposed on Libby was within his discretion.

Moreover, as Media Matters for America noted, Fitzgerald has argued that the sentencing guidelines in the case called for a 30- to 37-month sentence, a range within which Walton's sentence fell. From Fitzgerald's statement:

We fully recognize that the Constitution provides that commutation decisions are a matter of presidential prerogative and we do not comment on the exercise of that prerogative.

We comment only on the statement in which the President termed the sentence imposed by the judge as "excessive." The sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to the laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country. In this case, an experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws. It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals. That principle guided the judge during both the trial and the sentencing.

Although the President's decision eliminates Mr. Libby's sentence of imprisonment, Mr. Libby remains convicted by a jury of serious felonies, and we will continue to seek to preserve those convictions through the appeals process.

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