Fredericksberg Star

August 13, 2001 1:40 am

Louie the Gag

The Free Lance-Star

THANKS TO EASY DIVORCE, many Virginia parents, especially fathers, have lost legal "custody" of their children, meaning a normal presence, forever, in their lives. Arguably, mass court-ordered parentectomies constitute this society's most wholesale violation of basic human rights since planters sent parts of slave families "down the river." And when the state routinely shatters fundamental natural law, it's a short step to trampling associated civil liberties. In this regard, Virginia's secretary of health and human services has especially big feet.

A little history: In these pages on July 10, Howard University's Stephen Baskerville, appointed last April to the Virginia Child Support Guideline Review Panel, fired an op-ed broadside titled "Will Virginia child-support rules forever enrich divorce industry?" Drawing heavily from the minority report of Barry Koplen--Mr. Baskerville's predecessor as the only representative of noncustodial parents on the body--the professor assailed the panel for its (in his view) inherent conflict of interest. At least 10 of the 12 members--judges, lawyers, and so on--who convened in 1999, he wrote, "have a stake in encouraging divorce and criminalizing fathers and therefore making child support as onerous as possible."

These remarks evidently empurpled the commonwealth's H&HS chief, Louis Rossiter. On July 23, Mr. Rossiter wrote to inform Mr. Baskerville that because of his commentary, which debuted in The Washington Times, his appointment to the panel was rescinded "in the best interest of all concerned." The secretary surely deserves an Oscar. No, not the Hollywood type. The one named for Oscar Wilde, who quipped, "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar and often convincing."

Secretary Rossiter denies that he cashiered Mr. Baskerville because of his views. Rather, in the secretary's opinion, the professor sinned against collegiality, harming his effectiveness on the panel with his bare-knuckled public prose. Nonsense. Straight talk should be welcomed: If Mr. Baskerville is wrong, uncamouflaged error is the most easily corrected. Nor should passion be penalized. We sit Arab and Jew, IRA member and Ulsterman, at the same table because we hope some understanding will come from even heated discourse. When the subject is the taking of Virginians' children and property, it's un-reasonable to expect a monotone of frigid detachment.

In fact, Mr. Baskerville's assumption that a job title dictates a certain view of divorce-related matters seems flawed: There are lawyers who encourage divorcing couples to patch things up, and some domestic-court judges, sick of dealing with the consequences of marital disunion, would like to toss their sabots into the gears of the divorce industry. But Mr. Baskerville's key point--that when it comes to state-dictated child-support issues the fix is in--is only strengthened when he's sacked for making it.

In a written response to Secretary Rossiter, Mr. Baskerville rightly wonders how free his successor on the panel will feel to express himself, lest he, too, get the heave. "Especially troubling," Mr. Baskerville writes, "is your assumption that opinions unapproved by government officials constitute legitimate grounds for dismissing duly appointed individuals from positions of public service." And he quotes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox politicsor other matters of opinion."

It's clear what kind of official Prescriber Rossiter is, and it ain't high. Panel members who don't want to be a party to speech suppression and suspect policy-making should boycott meetings until Mr. Baskerville is reinstated.

Copyright 2001 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.