Last Tuesday, Judicial Watch unfortunately lost its appeal on behalf of Joe Wurzelbacher, known to many as “Joe the Plumber.”
You may recall that Mr. Wurzelbacher had the “gall” in 2008 to question then-candidate for the presidency Barack Obama during a campaign stop about the impact of his tax policies on small businesses. (Mr. Wurzelbacher was a plumber and a small businessman.) Obama responded by saying that he thought it was a good idea to “spread the wealth around,” a statement that sent shock waves through the presidential campaign. (You can watch the exchange here.)
“Joe the Plumber’s” Q&A with Obama quickly “went viral” and became a public sensation, but it’s what happened behind closed doors that led to Judicial Watch’s legal action on Mr. Wurzelbacher’s behalf.
According to an investigation by the Ohio Inspector General on October 16, 2008, just four days after Mr. Wurzelbacher questioned Obama, the three highest ranking employees of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (Helen Jones-Kelley, Fred Williams and Doug Thompson) held a meeting and specifically discussed “Joe the Plumber.” Following the meeting, the three Ohio officials authorized and instructed agency personnel to search confidential office databases to retrieve information about Mr. Wurzelbacher.
Given that all three are believed to have been Obama campaign supporters, the intent seems obvious: They wanted to collect dirt on Mr. Wurzelbacher that could be used to undermine his credibility. (“Joe the Plumber” had become something of a campaign celebrity following his revealing exchange with Obama.)
With respect to the dirt-digging, the Inspector General (IG) confirmed the obvious: There was “no legitimate agency function or purpose for checking on [Mr. Wurzelbacher’s] name through the [confidential databases] or for authorizing these searches,” which the IG labeled a “wrongful act.” The IG also determined that one of the defendants, Helen Jones-Kelley, misused state resources to conduct political activities on behalf of Obama.
In response to what was clearly a violation of Mr. Wurzelbacher’s constitutional rights, Judicial Watch stepped forward and filed a lawsuit on his behalf in conjunction with Ohio attorney David R. Langdon. The lower court dismissed the lawsuit, citing a “failure to allege a sufficient adverse reaction” by Mr. Wurzelbacher. JW filed an appeal but unfortunately the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision. We think the courts are completely wrong, but here’s a squib from the ruling handed down this week:
Wurzelbacher does allege that his knowledge of the improper database searches caused him to suffer “emotional distress, harassment, personal humiliation, and embarrassment.” However, these allegations are too generalized to withstand judgment on the pleadings.
Overall, the court said the repercussions of the smear campaign attempted against Mr. Wurzelbacher were “inconsequential.”
That’s right. The repercussions of government officials retaliating against you for exercising your First Amendment rights were labeled “inconsequential” by the court. The implications of this decision are frightening. Essentially, this ruling means that government officials can feel free to rifle through the private files of citizens without fear of accountability.
Let me put it this way. Here we are again in an election season. Can any American citizen feel comfortable exercising their First Amendment rights by questioning candidates on the issues when they may be subject to secret searches by politicized bureaucrats in return?
It is unconscionable that high-ranking state officials pried into confidential government files to punish Joe Wurzelbacher for asking a simple question. Justice was not served with this decision. I’m sure the Obama operation is sighing in relief now that its campaign supporters escaped full accountability this week. Though the latest court decision has a silver lining: news reports citing our critique of the violations of Joe Wurzelbacher’s rights appeared all over the country. In my view, educating Americans about government corruption is an essential step to stopping it.