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Governor Northam: Live by the Oath, Die by the Oath

Updated: May 22, 2020

Article 1, Section 11 of the Virginia Constitution states, "That no person shall be deprived of his life, liberty, or property without due process of law; that the General Assembly shall not pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts; and that the right to be free from any governmental discrimination upon the basis of religious conviction, race, color, sex, or national origin shall not be abridged, except that the mere separation of the sexes shall not be considered discrimination."

Over the past few weeks, Governor Northam has been the subject of much heated controversy and criticism from his 1984 medical school yearbook page, which featured an individual in black--face and another adorned from head to toe in KKK garb. No one knows who's who as Northam now denies that he is either individual pictured. Initially the governor apologized emphatically for the content on his yearbook page, but a day later he reversed course and called for an investigation into the who, what, when, where, and why of Mr. black--face and Mr. Klan Man pictured on the yearbook page bearing his name.

This is a baffling, incredulous, and shameful situation that most Americans find incompatible with post Jim Crow Virginia and America's contemporary mindset when it comes to race, equality, and today's cultural norms. The embattled governor's about-face lacks credibility, and his babbling explanation rings hollow, incoherent, tone deaf, and morally indefensible.

Northam obviously is attempting to exploit the fact that the identities of the individuals pictured cannot be determined and are therefore unknown. We have no knowledge of who is Mr black-face or who is the Klan man, and Northam uses this ready-made defense to claim innocence. Again, most reasonable persons find this maneuver implausible, deceptive, disturbing, and discrediting.

The governor's PR gambit is a futile attempt to somehow reclaim respect and restore his reputation nationally. The governor is also desperate to save his political soul from scandal and moral shame. Ethically speaking, however, Northam's ordeal raises provocative questions about past moral failures revealed in the present. Minus criminal wrongdoing, how can Northam be held accountable today for past wrongdoing? Does moral responsibility require Northam to resign from high office? Does one incident make Northam a racist? Given the past revelation, does Northam represent the character, ideals, and virtues called for and implied in the oath of office?

I began this conversation with a reference from the Virginia Constitution. I believe this citation has been overlooked in the public's haste to condemn, criticize, and repudiate Governor Northam, but I assert with confidence that accountability begins here because the oath of office presumes that in order to fulfill the requirements for justice, equality, fairness and the other constitutional mandates, integrity, character, and a shared commitment between the the governor and governed are required.

As the Virginia governor was sworn into office, he repeated the oath of office and swore to uphold the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Article 1, Section 11 explicitly prohibits racial discrimination, and Governor Northam swore to defend this principle for all citizens of Virginia without compromise. As governor, he repeated this oath and made these words his legal and moral duty. In other words, this was his promise, and with it accrues all the moral and legal expectations commensurate with high public office.

More than just ceremonial, oaths for elected officials are to be taken seriously because they establish standards of accountability, moral and legal expectations, and become the civic leader's promise and public profession to safeguard the public trust. To engage in conduct to the contrary is ruinous and does violence to one's moral, personal, and professional credibility.

In Northam's case, the moral defect occurred long before assuming public office so what dos this mean for his life as a public figure today? In my estimation, Governor Northam is morally compromised by his yearbook exposé and his awkward flip-flop from acceptance of responsibility to denial is a serious moral failure because his "leadership" cannot be trusted and his history creates doubt in matters of racial equality, fairness, and justice. Again, Northam has a serious credibility issue that impedes his ability to speak with authenticity and moral authority when race, prejudice, and discrimination are at issue.

As I have shown thus far, there is a serious conflict between his sworn duty to promote and defend racial fairness and the reality of his participation in racially intolerant images and stereotypes from nearly thirty-five years ago. The implicit attitudes and overt actions that the yearbook photos represent clearly undermine the ideals and aspirations of fairness, justice, equality, and civic integrity, which are all central to community, the common good, and the Constitutions governing authority. Northam's moral disconnect between what he says today versus what he did thirty-five years ago fails to reconcile with the values and virtues of the oath of office he took as a newly elected governor. By invoking the Constitution in his oath, he promised to defend and protect racial equality under the law as expressed in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the US Constitution. Herein is Northam's foremost problem as Governor of Virginia and why he is unfit for office: his past is indicative of a man who does not embody the ideals and principles of equality and fairness thus rendering his moral authority mute, invalid, and without credibility.

In a wonderfully prescient Northwestern University Law Review article by Richard M. Re titled Promising the Constitution (2016), Re convincingly captures much of what I have said about the relationship between the oath and the public trust, moral obligations, and a wide range of other themes that are relevant to my discussion and the controversy surrounding Northam. As I close, the following re-emphasizes why I believe the Northram revelation retroactively invalidates his oath and thus makes him morally unfit and lacking constitutional credibility to remain as governor. His racial offense was so egregious that it does not enable him to promote core American ideals that are central to our democratic way of life and meaningful to "diversity" in spirit and in truth.

"Besides offering a rejoinder to those who are skeptical that officials have a general moral duty to follow law at all, the oath provides a powerful moral reason that must at the very least be considered in tandem with rival moral considerations. Indeed, anyone who cares about officials’ moral responsibilities must reckon with the oath.

"...An official who takes the oath has made a voluntary and intentional expression of commitment, and at least a large part of the public knows about and desires that commitment. In addition, the oath is part of a conditional exchange, as officeholders may assume their posts only if they commit to constitutionalism. And official defiance of the oath would violate the public’s trust, reliance, and expectations."

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