Defense Fund Limit Wrong

The concept of the legal defense fund has been around in this country for generations. In 1925, for example, John T. Scopes' neighbors contributed money to hire Clarence Darrow to represent him in Tennessee's famous Monkey Trial.

More recently, auto maker John Z. DeLorean ran newspaper ads to raise money to pay his legal bill, and in San Diego social worker Chester Holliday's friends and supporters helped him secure a retrial of his manslaughter conviction--and he was acquitted.

So it's hard to see why Mayor Roger Hedgecock should not be allowed the same avenue to raise money to defend himself against criminal conspiracy and perjury charges and against a civil lawsuit filed by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

City Atty. John Witt has ruled that the mayor's legal defense fund must be governed by San Diego's $250 individual campaign contribution limit. That is a blow to Hedgecock, who had hoped to pull in contributions considerably larger than that to help meet his mounting legal debts. He has filed suit challenging Witt's legal opinion.

Since Hedgecock's "Californians for the Future" fund is not intended for use in any local campaign, it's difficult to follow the logic that says it should come under the city's campaign ordinance.

Witt argues that his legal opinion does not limit the mayor's ability to defend himself. But if Hedgecock is denied a fund-raising avenue available to any other defendant, he may in fact be prevented from hiring the lawyers of his choice.

We firmly support Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller's decision to retry Hedgecock. Like most San Diegans, we think the matter should be adjudicated and the mayor acquitted or convicted.

It is not only justice, but also the appearance of justice that is important--doubly so in such a highly visible and emotional case. It's important that Hedgecock be able to put on the best defense he can muster. To do so, he should be allowed to raise money from his supporters without the restrictions of a limit that is intended to cover a completely different set of circumstances.

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