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,

    That’s one thing I like about Linux is that it still has at its core a command line interface. Very handy if problems arise.

  2. Buddha and AY,

    I seem to get in this discussion annually. Which is bizarre considering I don’t deal with computer people that much and the only time I even think about opening a DOS emulator is when I want to play one of my older games (Bard’s Tale and Quest For Glory were both great series).

  3. I wish you would write more about issues in pro se litigation. I found out that 20,000 to 22,000 non prisoner pro se litigants file in federal court every year and essentially 100% of them have had their claims dismissed without a jury trial since Robert Kearns inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper won $10 Mill from Ford for patent infringement while pro se.

    What I think is a huge issue is regulation of insurance companies. I became interested in this when I was ordered to pay attorney bills in my pro se lawsuit so they sent me verified attorney bills sent to Underwriters at Lloyds London and Mutual Insurance of Bermuda. These were for services in Colorado but the required forms were not filed with the State of CO Division of Insurance. The State of CO says it doesn’t care. These days it is easy to sell insurance of all types over the Internet. In Bermuda alone there are hundreds of insurance companies targeting the U.S. and the capital and reporting requirements are very low.

    The lawyers in my lawsuit also billed Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency. It is not listed in CO as a corporation, partnership, local government or state agency so what is CIRSA? The Division of Insurance lists CIRSA as a “Governmental Self Ins Pool” While Salazar was CO AG and since, the State of Colorado admitted that it does not keep as required by CRS 24-10-115.5 (5) “The commissioner of insurance, or any person authorized by him, shall conduct an insurance examination at least once a year to determine that proper underwriting techniques and sound funding, loss reserves, and claims procedures are being followed.” With Salazar’s knowledge the state decided to ignore that law while Salazar was CO AG. 
The attorney bills paid by CIRSA show 
2/19/03 “Telephone calls from and to Colorado Attorney General re case status”. (Salazar was CO AG) 6/26/03 “Confer with attorney general regarding case status” 8/07/03 “Telephone call from State Insurance staff regarding plaintiffs’ demands, case background etc.” That was related to my open records request for CIRSA’s claims handling policies. 8/28/03 “Conference with Attorney General regarding state response to plaintiffs”. 9/04/03 “Confer with Dawes regarding injunction and insurance commissioner issues”. 10/16/03 “Telephone calls insurance commissioner regarding case status” 10/17/03 “telephone calls from and to Gambrill with insurance commissioner”.

    You know that the McCarran Ferguson Act predates the Internet. It restricts the feds from regulating insurance companies and it also restricts insurance companies from selling insurance without state regulation so I am thinking that without new laws the feds can probably prosecute insurance companies advertising or selling insurance without complete and up to date state regulatory filings.

    The State of CO also lists TIG Insurance as being active and selling medical insurance but the only address listed shows on Googlemaps as a residence and the only telephone number listed is a residential cell phone.

  4. Byron,

    They could have and should have put the corporation into receivership – an even bigger hammer. The government can do whatever they want to a corporation (as creatures of legal fiction deriving all their definition and power from the state by charter). The fact they aren’t is the result of graft.

  5. Bryon,

    Did you not hear that part of the reason Obama met with BP of England was to convince them not to pay 10 or 20 billion in Dividends to it stockholders until this Gulf Oil mess is cleaned up?

  6. Buddha:

    if the law says BP owes a bunch of money then tuff stuff for the shareholders. but for a government to force a company to turn over money for a “trust” fund is not good.

  7. In that case, you shouldn’t be averse to shareholder’s taking a hit too.

  8. I dont think BP should be bailed out at all, where have I said that? They should pay any and all claims they are legally responsible for. How is that socialized risk? I was not in favor of the government limiting their liability either. Now that truly is socializing risk.

  9. By that same logic, it’s illegal to go after methamphetimine or cocaine manufacturers because it’s individuals who distribute (and have economic/ROI benefits from) the product. Shareholder benefit from corporate actions ergo they should also pay the price for corporate misdeeds along with the criminally culpable corporate agents. A criminal enterprise is a criminal enterprise whether they are incorporated or not. And the price for getting into bed with dogs is getting fleas. Those individuals you are so concerned about didn’t do their due diligence before investing or they’d have known BP is a serial safety law violator. Now they should pay the price for their bad investment. It’s funny how you seem to want a free (of private risk) market. Private profits and socialized risk is exactly what you’re advocating. Also funny from a guy who decries the bailouts.

  10. Thank you Buddha.


    The English ownership of Corporations is in a nut shell personal liability.

  11. SM:

    Personally I think BP is responsible to the extent the law allows. The redress for the people of the Gulf Coast is through the court system. If BP goes belly up because of it, so be it. But I don’t think the government has any business “stealing” money from a company to put in escrow. I think it sets a very bad precedent and logically could be used to take money from any business based on some politicians idea of what constitutes a disaster.

    Bachmans comment on redistribution of wealth is not a good explanation in my mind and doesn’t speak to the actual principle of what the government is doing. In my opinion it is a lawless act by hooligans.

    I know many here disagree and think government has every right to take money for reparations. But as economist Walter E. Williams says “a corporation is a legal fiction, it is owned by individuals”.

  12. AY,

    No. What you have now is a command line emulator, but it’s not really DOS.

  13. Buddha,

    Are they not still DOS based? You still have the command lines when you want to change the system configs.

  14. Gyges, Byron, AY,

    NT and Windows 2000 were indeed the first non-DOS shell versions of Windows.

    And speak for yourself Byron. I can make DOS bark like a dog. That has saved me from more than a few data disasters over the years.


    Yeah, it was those naughty Dems who took civics out of the curriculum. Considering that it’s the Republican controlled State of Texas that’s purposefully dumbing down the texts to exclude the Establishment Clause. Your blind partisanship is exceedingly stupid. But by all means, pick your “team”, you simple creature. Help the strategy of “divide and conquer”. Jill has the one and only correct answer: both parties are pissing on the Constitution. They just want you to blame one side or the other instead of both.

    But if you really want to place the blame on dumbing down America? You need look no further than your own beloved Republican poster boy Bush. Until the ridiculous “No Child Left Behind” Act, the ED was a paper tiger – unable to interfere with educational standards which are determined at the local level – until a Republican tyrant used the very institution of the Federal Government that the GOP once decried as unconstitutional for their own ends. And let’s look at the success of that Bush program. This is Time’s critique –,9171,1625192,00.html

    But yeah, it was those Dems, you pious homophobic partisan bootlicker. The same person who said “This is wonderful” when a child was denied entrance to their school of choice because of her parents sexual orientation. Your very lack of education and your bigotry automatically discount anything you have to say about the quality and content of education.

  15. Sorry Gyges,

    You might be correct. I have XP, Vista and Windows 7. I know Vista still boots up like DOS. I have not used XP in a while. 7 I have not looked closely at.

  16. Bryon,

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

    Depending on the Strip Bar/Club you go to, you could probably get all three. Titties, Gas and Oil……..

  17. Bryon,

    Fortran, Cobol, punch cards etc. That was what I trained early on.

  18. Bryon,

    When loading up your computer, look at the base core processor.

  19. Bryon,

    On the tablets you read Right to left, some were read top to bottom. I think mespo could probably answer this question more clearly as it was changed about the time of his era of encroachment. About the 3 or 4th century.

    The scrolls are another story, they could be read top to bottom, left to right or right to left, this is depending upon the language used.

    I too cannot read them, but I have studied them for the beautiful artwork and the history preserved.

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