Do Laws Matter?

Below is today’s column exploring the growing anger of voters and the possible linkage of controversies ranging from the bank bailouts to immigration to the BP oil spill.

As soon as Arizona passed its recent immigration law, some reporters and commentators were quick to cast the story with the usual actors: “Tea Partiers,” race activists, conservatives and liberals. Like our politics, much of our news media coverage has become a clash of caricatures — easily categorized groups with one-dimensional motives for mass consumption. Some commentary even suggested that supporters of the law are either open or closeted racists. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., recently called the law both “fascist” and “racist.”

Though I am a critic of the Arizona law, I do not view its supporters in such one-dimensional terms. Indeed, I do not view the public response in purely immigration terms. Whether it is illegal immigration or the mortgage crisis or corporate bailouts, there seems to be a growing sense among many citizens that they are expected to play by the rules while others are exempt.

With polls showing about 60% of people supporting the Arizona law and almost half supporting similar laws in their states, it is implausible to suggest that all these people are racists or extremists — let alone fascists. Notably, a majority of Americans also opposed the bank bailouts and mortgage forgiveness. In each of these controversies, there is a sense that the government was stepping in to protect people from the consequences of their actions.

In the mortgage crisis, tens of thousands of people accepted high-risk, low-interest loans while other citizens either declined to buy homes or agreed to higher monthly payments to avoid such deals. When Congress intervened with mortgage relief, some of those who had acted responsibly wondered whether they acted stupidly by rejecting low rates and later federal support.

Bailouts and immigration

Then there were the corporate bailouts. For citizens to secure a loan, they have to meet exacting terms and disclosures. Yet, when banks and firms concealed risks or engaged in financial wrongdoing, Congress bailed them out and allowed their executives to reap fat bonuses. The laws on fraud and deceptive practices simply did not seem to apply to them. Just as several companies were declared “too big to fail,” many of their executives appeared too big to lose money — unlike the millions of citizens burned by their business practices.

Those prior controversies coalesced with the immigration debate. The last time Congress granted amnesty to illegal immigrants was 1986 — and it was criticized at the time for rewarding those who had evaded deportation. Complaints over the lack of federal enforcement had been percolating for years but exploded along Arizona’s long desert border. When a law mandated state enforcement of federal laws, the Obama administration moved to block it.

Indeed, high-ranking Obama officials such as John Morton, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have suggested that they might refuse to deport those arrested under the Arizona law. While we continue to tell millions around the world that they must wait for years to immigrate legally, Congress and the White House are considering a new amnesty proposal to benefit an additional 11 million illegal immigrants.

In each of these areas, the perception is that the law says one thing but actually means different things for different people. It is a dangerous perception, and it is not entirely unfounded. Such double-standards have become common as Congress and presidents seek to avoid unpopular legal problems.

•Torture: While acknowledging that waterboarding is torture and that torture violates domestic and international law, President Obama and members of Congress have barred any investigation or prosecution of those crimes.

•Pollution: While citizens are subject to pay for the full damage they cause to their neighbors and are routinely fined for their environmental damage for everything from dumping in rivers to leaf burning, Congress capped the liability for massive corporations such as BP and Exxon at a ridiculous $75 million. Though BP is likely to spend much more in litigation (particularly if prosecuted criminally), the current law requires citizens to pay the full cost of their environmental damage while capping the costs for companies producing massive destruction.

•Privacy: When the telecommunications companies found themselves on the losing end of citizen suits over the violation of privacy laws, Congress (including then-Sen. Obama) and President Bush simply changed the law to legislatively kill the citizen suits and protect the companies.

An arbitrary system

The message across these areas is troubling. To paraphrase Animal Farm, all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.

A legal system cannot demand the faith and fealty of the governed when rules are seen as arbitrary and deceptive. Our leaders have led us not to an economic crisis or an immigration crisis or an environmental crisis or a civil liberties crisis. They have led us to a crisis of faith where citizens no longer believe that laws have any determinant meaning. It is politics, not the law, that appears to drive outcomes — a self-destructive trend for a nation supposedly defined by the rule of law.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

USA Today: June 15, 2010

117 thoughts on “Do Laws Matter?”

  1. @Gyges: People (like Melpol) say in jest what they mean in earnest. It is the easiest way to express their racist, sexist, or otherwise shallow-minded cliche opinions and fish for sympathizers. If somebody laughs, they have found a like-minded friend. If somebody gets angry, they can say it was just a lame joke and disavow their true opinion. Joking is the coward’s approach to political commentary.

    People say in jest what they mean in earnest. American racists have a whole litany of racist jokes, from mild to hateful, and with new co-workers they deploy the mildest first to gauge reactions. Anti-semitics have a litany of jewish jokes; sexists have a litany of dumb blonde jokes, all ranked for offensiveness. That is not an accident; jokes are their tool for minimizing their risk while probing for like-minded friends.

    Sometimes a joke is just a joke. But a joke that insults a class of people is always just a thinly disguised insult, and almost always in search of a similarly diseased mind.

  2. Melpol,

    As someone married to an attractive woman, who can run intellectual laps around me, I find your comment laughable. And not in the way you intended.


  3. Less than attractive women learn not to depend on their bedroom talents, and develop better skills, that is why Kagan will make an outstanding juror. The decisions of attractive female judges were always compromised by stunning looking lawyers. Kagan will understand the suffering of the facially challenged and rule in their favor.

  4. AY,

    Thanks for having my back, but I did not take Tony’s post to imply I was a sociopath. A bit clumsily worded perhaps, but not an accusation proper.

  5. While I do believe in organic sociopathy, I also believe that it can be learned as well – a decision. I will even stipulate that the majority of sociopaths are probably of the organic/induced variety, but it is perhaps unwise to forget that some people are simply evil out of conscious choice. In any case, sociopaths should be dealt with as one would deal with a rabid dog: keep and eye on them and the instant they become a danger? Remove them from society so they can do no further harm. Permanently if need be.

  6. Re-read what you posted:


    >> I guess not everyone is as lucky as my cousins.

    True, but not in the way you think. Sociopathy is a brain disorder, people are usually born that way, but can develop it through brain damage caused by accident or drug use (one of the frightening side effects of cocaine usage, but cocaine is not the only drug that causes it).

  7. @Anon:

    REALLY? How can you possibly read what Buddha wrote, and then what I wrote, and then conclude I think he is a sociopath?

    Buddha was talking about the lessons learned by he and his cousins from a Polish grandmother. Then HE implied that if more people had grandmothers with this personality, they would not grow up to be sociopaths.

    I was merely pointing out to Buddha some interesting brain science that indicates sociopaths are generally born that way, or brain damage makes them that way. Not, usually, their experiences of youth. (Some people later diagnosed as sociopaths have records going back to the age of five for doing astonishingly cruel and fatal things to family dogs, cats and siblings, apparently without feeling any remorse.)

    Buddha, to the best I can discern by his writing, is not a sociopath. Now as for Byron, that case is still open.

  8. Tony,

    Clarify the first part of this please. You are not suggesting that Buddha is a Sociopath? I would have to disagree with you based on conversations with him.

  9. @Buddha:

    >> I guess not everyone is as lucky as my cousins.

    True, but not in the way you think. Sociopathy is a brain disorder, people are usually born that way, but can develop it through brain damage caused by accident or drug use (one of the frightening side effects of cocaine usage, but cocaine is not the only drug that causes it).

    Sociopaths have a disconnect between their mind and body; a kind of independence and control that neuro-normal people do not have. (One sign of sociopathy is being able to physically tickle onself.) They pass lie detector tests because their heart rate, perspiration rate and other physical signs do not change under stress, at least not to the extent the machine can detect when it is calibrated for neuro-normal people.

    Your cousins are lucky, but lucky like us, to be born normal.

    The Socio part of sociopathy is a complete lack of empathy. They really just don’t give a shit if we live or die. They are the ultimate selfish bastards, they lie convincingly, and are completely ruthless. They learn to be charming and friendly, but they are acting. (Like Bernie Madoff said after stealing 50 billion dollars and bankrupting elderly retirees — Fuck my victims.) Among sociopaths, about 1% of the population, as we would expect there is a distribution of IQ. The smarter ones rise to positions of power and lucrative compensation that require very little or no work at all, because they are smart, and ruthless, and lie convincingly, and have no conscience, and complete disdain for those that do.

    Those positions? Our leaders in Business, Politics and Religion, just about in that order. Televangelists ain’t in the soul saving business for the souls, they are in it for the business.

  10. Yes it is true, ya, we plant cheerieo because they grow into Pączki (Polish pronunciation [ˈpɔnt​͡ʂki]) are pastries traditional to Polish cuisine (the word pączek is sometimes translated as doughnut)

  11. I have cousins who were lucky enough to have a Polish grandmother. She was a well spoken, well educated and wonderful woman who I loved as if she were my own grandmother.

    And she knew more Polish jokes than any person I have ever met. A real collector. She even had a Polish coffee mug – with the handle on the inside.

    So not only have Poles contributed to the worlds of science and music, but the world of humor and educating her grandchildren in a very important lesson: don’t take yourself too seriously.

    Which is kinda funny.

    Considering that the lawlessness and corruption infecting our nation comes from a bunch of humorless, greedy, self-important sociopaths disguised as members of Congress and “the elites” of big business.

    I guess not everyone is as lucky as my cousins.

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