Bill Weld

'Social Justice'–Touting Bill Weld Has Kind Words for Fellow Ex-Prosecutors Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar

The possible presidential contender has come a long way since his tough-on-crime speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, but he's still emphasizing his U.S. attorney past.


||| Keiko Hiromi/AFLO/Newscom
Keiko Hiromi/AFLO/Newscom

Yesterday at Franklin Pierce University's Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication in Rindge, New Hampshire, Bill Weld—who is trying to make Donald Trump the only incumbent president not named Franklin Pierce to seek yet still lose the nomination of his own political party—told the assembled pizza-gobbling students that "you'll be hearing a lot more from me about social justice."

So far, so normal for the 2016 Libertarian Party vice-presidential nominee, whose stump speech the past four years has included laments about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. "The social justice impact of the war on drugs on various communities, minority communities versus white communities, is staggering," he told me last month at LibertyCon. "If you're in a minority community, you're four times as likely to get arrested for marijuana offense, four times as likely to get jail time after you're arrested, your sentence is likely going to be four times as long. That's a 64X multiple, not an 8X multiple. I think we need perhaps have some statutory recognition of this."

Yet Woke Bill Weld still has a soft spot for his fellow ex-prosecutors running for president across the aisle: Sens. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.):

Harris in particular has long been a bête noire for civil libertarian criminal justice reformers, and Klobuchar was a "tough on crime" prosecutor whose legislative record also includes misguided (if popular-among-pols-of-both-parties) crackdowns on "human trafficking" and drugs. So why the Weldian shout-outs?

Occam's razor suggests that the perpetually amused political genre-bender simply enjoys surprising audiences with seemingly unexpected observations. This is the man, after all, who drew applause at the Republican National Convention in 1992 for defending "a woman's right to choose" and declaring that "I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom." (The latter quip in particular is one that Weld enjoys recounting on the pre-campaign trail.)

But it's also true that one of the candidate's main selling propositions this season, as WMUR reports, is respect for the rule of law: "Weld is contrasting his background as a federal prosecutor with Trump's legal troubles as he explores a presidential run." The Keene Sentinel's write-up of the Franklin Pierce speech points out that, "On at least three occasions, Weld emphasized his time as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts in the Department of Justice with Robert Mueller."

And let's not forget the section of his 1992 RNC speech that Weld doesn't highlight nowadays, which was basically its main theme: "We are tough on crime, because unless our families are free to walk the streets in safety, no other freedoms really matter." Watch the whole thing:

To his credit, Weld has since backed off such tuff-guy talk excoriating "soft-minded, coddling approaches to crime." At Freedom Fest in July 2016, for example, he told me, "Although I was a champion of mandatory minimum sentences back 20 years ago, when…people would be sentenced to 20 years and they'd be doing six months, including [for] violent crimes…now, partly [because of] the narcotics offenses, I think maybe that pendulum needs to come back a little bit so that more discretion is entrusted to the judges once again."

Weld last April joined former House speaker John Boehner on the advisory board of the cannabis company Acreage Holdings, and he expounded on his prosecutorial change of heart at the Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans three months later: "The way to level the playing field in terms of power between prosecutors and defendants is to cut down on the use of mandatory minimums, which is what the judges have been saying for some time. When I was in the Justice Department under Reagan, I was charged with having the other side of that, but you get older, you get wiser."

And in his New Hampshire speech last Friday announcing his possible candidacy, Weld stayed on the reformist side:

[Veterans] should be permitted to use cannabis for the relief of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, without losing their veterans' benefits entirely, which is the case under current V.A. law. The elderly must be permitted to have full access to non-addictive drugs, which are useful for the relief of pain, including cannabis and CBD. Addiction, of all types, should be treated as a national public health emergency, which it is, rather than as a crime of status and of top priority of the U.S. criminal justice system.

We should also move on in criminal justice to bail reform, funding for re-entry programs, and other criminal justice reforms not reached by the recent First Step legislation in Washington.

Reason on Weld here.