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The momentum of justice

THE departure of Evan Mecham from Arizona's governorship says something about the relentless movement of justice. Charges mount, protests of innocence are heard, and in the end - and an end must come - a resolution appears. The Arizona Senate resolved the clamorous controversy surrounding Mr. Mecham's term in office by impeaching and convicting him on charges of impeding justice and misuse of funds. From the record, the lawmakers' action appears just. Even minus the specific charges and conviction, Mecham's conduct in office - insults to various ethnic groups, high-handed dismissal of critics' complaints - threw constant doubt on his ability to discharge the public trust of his office.

Similar kinds of doubts are engulfing others who hold high office, in the United States and elsewhere. And justice, slow but inexorable, is moving toward them.

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United States Attorney General Edwin Meese has shown remarkable tenacity, clinging to his post against a tide of calls for his resignation. Among the latest to join that tide is Elliot Richardson, attorney general under President Nixon.

Now it appears that Mr. Meese will have difficulty filling the vacancies left by the departures, last week, of two top Justice Department aides. His first choices have begged off or hesitated for varied business and individual reasons, but always at hand is the prospect that few committed law enforcement people are going to want to sign up with Meese. That's an added embarrassment, both to the attorney general personally and to the crucial operation he so shakily heads.

Meese is not pursued by the clearly structured legal machinery that removed Governor Mecham from office. But justice is no less at stake, both to Meese himself and to the public he's duty-bound to serve. Special prosecutors are working in the background and public criticism of his performance in office in the foreground. It shouldn't be forgotten that Meese has not been found guilty of anything, and the presumption of innocence holds. But there needs to be a resolution here, too - one that should include a graceful exit from office, for the good of all involved.

Outside US borders, but intimately tied to decisions made in Washington, the saga of Panama's General Noriega drones on. Justice is pursuing him, too, both for his shady drug connections and for the agonies his clutching to power causes his countrymen. The Noriega story gets murkier the longer it plays. Unfortunately, the US role in that story also gets murkier, with testimony before a Senate subcommittee raising questions of earlier US tolerance of the general because he served American purposes in Nicaragua.

Justice isn't always so quick and clear as it was in Arizona's Capitol Monday. Still, the process of removing unfit officeholders - whether carried forward by constitutional machinery, public criticism, popular disgust, or diplomatic maneuvering - has the weight of rightness behind it. Resolution may take days, months, or years, but it eventually arrives.

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