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. AY,

    I think 2000 was the first version of Windows that was it’s own OS, and not just a shell for DOS.

  2. AY:

    I wasn’t asking to know, I was asking to underscore the fact that most people cannot use DOS anymore.

  3. SM:

    here is the problem in a nutshell:

    “DALLAS — Texas Republicans premiered their new comedy sequel Saturday, unreeling a party platform that puts gas drilling into neighborhoods and strip club dancers out.”

    Republicans don’t like titties and democrats don’t like gas and oil. Same thing different religions. One God, one Earth.

  4. Bryon,

    If you are talking about computers it is Disk Operating System. It is they system that every version of windows operates upon.

    Did I miss speak, again?

  5. AY:

    We don’t know how to read cuneiform tablets or papyrus scrolls either. Nor do we know much about cursive writing anymore, most of us cannot use a mimeograph machine nor an eight track tape.

    What is DOS?

  6. SW Mom and Bryon,

    They voted and now its part of the curriculum. The Establishment Clause will not be taught or even brought up. I have a friend that works for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich or HBC and stated the above.

    What is scary they said is because Texas is such a major purchaser of books, some states readily adopt the states curriculum. The state is also looking to purchase EBooks to save money another sore state of affairs. This person is an English Major Graduate and they are worried that not only is the state dumbing down its students rapidly but that they won’t even know how to use an index or Table of Content.

  7. The lack of the rule of law is endemic to this entire nation. Opposition should not be based on party, but on actions. If in TX these actions occur at the hands of Republicans, oppose them with all your might. Meanwhile, when a Democratic president says he may imprison people indefinitely without trial, oppose him with all your might. These are both dangerous.

  8. The lack of the rule of law is a partisan issue in Texas. Read the republican platform just adopted.

  9. The lack of the rule of law is not a partisan issue. Bush and Cheney radically dismantled the rule of law, but they could not have accomplished this without the willing participation of Democrats. Even when the Democrats had a Congressional majority, they did not try to impeach either man. They did not roll back the many draconian, anti Constitutional laws passed under the rubric of the “war on terror”. Republicans, in the main, did nothing to stop their own party from dismantling the rule of law. Now with the Democrats in power we see a similar dynamic at work. It is now ordinary Democrats who refuse to tell their leadership, “you may not dismantle the rule of law”. This is a horrible mistake.

    We have a president who is making the illegal, “legal”. He has claimed powers for himself that he does not posses, ie: the right to imprison people indefinitely without trial, the right to kill anyone, including American citizens, anywhere overseas, should he call them a terrorist. Both of these example violate both US and international law. Congress members, both Democratic and Republican, are busy ratifying Obama’s many imaginary powers into “law”. Far too many of our courts refuse to take on this amazing executive overreach.

    It greatly worries me that so many people accept the abridgment of the Constitution because it is Obama and Democrats who are doing it. Ours has become a country with the rule of fiat, not the rule of law. This is incredibly dangerous, yet like ordinary Republicans before them, ordinary Democrats are willing to suspend all criticism and quit fighting for our nation’s Constitution because its “our guys” with the wrecking ball. The rule of law is what allows our nation to function. It doesn’t matter who is destroying it. When there are people destroying our Constitution, they should be opposed. It really is that black and white.

  10. No There are 10 conservative republicans and 5 democrats. All republicans voted for the changes which establish a more christian curriculum and originally removed Thomas Jefferson.

  11. Buddha:

    I know that most Tea Party folks don’t know about the Constitution. Democrats made sure they don’t by eliminating the teaching of it in the public schools. It is leftists/democrats who set the academic agenda in our schools and they have eliminated this study from them.

    What I refer to is the desire to learn about it now through self-education, and the wish that our leaders obey it.

    This is something the democrat rank and file has no interest in whatsoever. Regular democrat folks NEVER talk about the Constitution. It is of no interest to them. And in the that regard they are even more ignorant than Tea Party folks. Naturally.

    And imagine how stupid our leaders are. They are sworn to uphold it, and generally college educated and yet continually violate it mainly because they don’t even know what it says or what it means. Indeed, they assault it.

    How much more stupid are they than the Tea Party people who at least are interested in restoring it?

    Very much more stupid.

    I’m for everyone wanting to restore the Constitution even if they are not sure what it means.

  12. That’d be all well and good Tootles if the Tea Baggers showed evidence of actually understanding the Constitution instead of infusing it with their racist neo-Christian agenda. And weren’t devoid critical thought. And had any real understanding of the definitions of the words they use. Or the nature of the problem they rebel against despite being pawns of the very same lobbyist driven machinations that created the treasonous Bush Administration and their successor in crime, the Obama Administration.

    Evidence? They’ve threatened American cartoonist Mark Fiore’s life for this critical cartoon:


    Yeah, those tea baggers sure are the real heroes! Oh! My bad for the typo. I meant zeros. Because threatening someone who points out their peccadilloes? That’s what Muslim extremists do.

    Yeah, dimwitted zealots who learned American history from sugar packets at Denny’s being led by morons like Michelle Bachmann. Endorsed by homophobic bigots everywhere! Now there’s a future you can believe in!


    I just vomited into my mouth a little trying to say that with a straight face.

    There needs to be some real change alright. The Tea Baggers are most emphatically not it. And the fact that you, Tootles, a demonstrated homophobic bigot endorse them about sums up how fit they’d be to run the country . . . right into the ground.

  13. Mike Appleton:

    Great comments @ 9:29am.

    I like Friedrich Hayek’s explanation of rule of law:

    “Nothing distinguishes more clearly a free country from a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law. Stripped of technicalities this means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules that make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its corrective powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”

    Right now, we cannot foresee with fair certainty how authority will use its corrective powers so that we may plan our affairs. Our planning has been completely disrupted by our government. Social security is threatened, old people now live in fear that medicare will be pulled out from under them, government bureaucrats will seize all our most private, intimate medical records against our will, retirement funds are being destroyed, and government eyes them for plunder. Our entire way of life is being ripped apart before our eyes. Even the breath we breathe is considered a pollutant. Our leaders are making being a human being a criminal act.

    Who can plan for insanity in government?

    Therefore, the rule of law is being destroyed. Arbitrary power now rules. We don’t know what to expect from our leaders who intend to move us around like chess pieces on a game board.

    Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are the dangerous, seditious, extremists they accuse Tea Party members and right-wing groups of being. It is Tea Party members, and even some militia groups, who want the rule of law restored. The militias do what they do because they are positive that our leaders are treasonous usurpers. It is a shame that unseemly people associated with such organizations are more right about our Constitution than our elite leaders.

    It is Obama, Pelosi, Reid, McCain, Cheney, Bush and who want the framework–rule of law–destroyed.

    It is the little people who are calling for the restoration.

  14. Everyone can relate in one way or another the things that the “elite” or getting away with nowadays.And it makes it more obvious.

    ” all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.”

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