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. Fryderyk Chopin, says, can you play Peanut Butter and Jelly, like I can?

  2. If I hear/see one more person reference “polls showing 60% support the Arizona law” without once actually citing a single poll, I swear I’m gonna puke.

    Everyone supports immigration enforcement, in theory, and nobody supports it in practice. Bring me your tired, your poor, but make sure they speak English and don’t need a job? WTF?

    The law is racist, anyone who supports it is racist, unless they’re one of these imaginary 60% that think racism is just fine and dandy. As defined in the Constitution, residents of a state are people residing in that state; all such people must be equally protected by that state’s government, regardless of whether they are US citizens. Whether someone is a citizen means exactly NOTHING to anyone except the federal government, and that’s that.

  3. Addendum to above; Currently our ‘leaders’ have chosen to attack each other rather than to lead or protect…the governed ‘people’ in this country are sitting ducks for any terrorist event, attack or exploitation either foreign or domestic. In this climate…laws are merely endangering…

  4. Thank you Prof. Turley, for this column. For putting words and shining a light on one of the core causes of the current dark zeitgeist in the United States. I disagree only w/1 thing in what you have said. I believe that our governing leaders HAVE led us to all of these things….and that is the CAUSE of the current crises of faith. The question now is can we believe in them, in our laws, in our systems, to get us out of the morass? The swinging door between Corporations and our Federal platforms shout self interest, and that is a point of crisis in a governing body…what is the next step from there? Complete dissolution or solidification of the idealistic point of reference. Solve that and you solve the crisis…this is the point that we as a Nation, are standing on. Who are we now? Personally I find myself looking for the ideals of my Country, in foreign places. I truly hope that I am mistaken and my leaders and my land will wake up and grow some (pardon the frankness…) testicles.

    “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.”

  5. Byron,

    It’s families that BP are destroying . . . along with everything else they touch. If you think my language offensive? I say look out across the devastated Gulf and shut the Hell up. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.

    No words can ever be as offensive as BP’s crimes.

  6. “History has a long-range perspective. It ultimately passes stern judgment on tyrants and vindicates those who fought, suffered, were imprisoned, and died for human freedom, against political oppression and economic slavery.” – Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

    To be free of Big Oil’s tyranny, we must first be rid of their lackeys in government. This means the Barbour’s and Barton’s of the world. The base technologies exist that with a Manhattan Project level of effort, the United States could be the first carbon-free hydrogen based economy with public not for profit ownership. The change in ownership from private to public is critical. We have been economic slaves to puppeteers like BP and OPEC for far too long. Operated as a public trust as the defining management feature would keep market based abuses out of our energy supply infrastructure so critical to not just national security but national prosperity by removing private greed from the financial equation. Private greed which is the direct cause of “accidents” like BP had in the Gulf. Accidental like pedophilia is accidental. The reason we have not seen such an effort to eliminate bad actors like BP from our economy all together is the corrupting graft of the lobby and campaign finance systems that prop up clowns like Barbour and Barton. They serve to keep their Big Oil masters in power, not the best interests of the country. To be free from economic slavery requires that the chains be broken and the corporatist slave owners crushed.

    Nature points the way to freedom.

    The government is simply too self-evidently corrupted to take the right path without being forced to comply.

  7. Buddha:

    “Tony Hayward’s multi-shafted demon cock in their mouths. They say it’s “minty cash flavored”. Which makes selling out their citizen constituents taste better.”

    Kinda like the Hydra of Greek mythology? Except for the “minty cash flavored” breath. How come you didn’t use 9 heads?

    Goll darn Buddha this is a family website.

  8. “Many of our people were in the shrimping, oystering, crabbing, and fishing industries,” Verret said. “That’s just about all shut down, and of course it’s going to affect the whole community. A lot of families are used to going to the water to make their livelihoods. Now they’re all jammed in, not knowing how long it’ll be or how much damage to expect.”

    Kirby Verret, former tribal chairman of the United Houma Nation, hopes to hear from the Alaskans about “what they experienced and how did they make it through and what’s going on right now, 21 years later.”

    The Barton’s and Barbour’s are IMO not only paying of political debts but recognise a fact that few others do: oil and gas are going to be the ONLY industry the gulf states have left once the magnitude of this slo-mo apocalypse plays out. Millions of jobs are going to be lost. I don’t think the magnitude or implication’s of that problem has as yet been grasped. Portions of the gulf states are going to have no business future at all except Ebay and big oil.

    Unless the country is prepared to absorb a migration away from the gulf as large numbers of people go looking for jobs, as people did after the Exxon Valdez spill, (in an era that has a broken and depressed manufacturing base country wide) then allowing more oil/gas drilling and processing is the perversely logical thing to do. However great the lock on the area by big oil was prior to this event, it becomes magnified hereafter.

    The need for jobs will directly translate to more drilling/processing. Barton getting into the competition early and kissing-a** aplenty is actually representing his State in a reality turned upside down. I’m not defending him or his ilk, just observing from a point of view I didn’t have a couple of weeks ago.

    Tangential to Byron’s concern about the BP escrow arm twisting: the gulf differs from the EV in that the Native Alaskans irreparably harmed by the EV, the gulf residents won’t have to exist hand to mouth or on the Federal/State teat endlessly while their valid claims wend their way (20 years worth, as claimants died and reduced the number of claimants) through a court system that culminates in a SCOTUS decision that reduces their settlement’s to a pittance. At least this time some of them get money from the actual perpetrator of this crime against nature and humanity up front. Anything other than front-money is welfare to BP because someone will have to pick up that tab. Any guess who?

  9. AP has consolidated a list of how much each member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee took in from oil and gas interests since 2009.

    And the winner is . . . Roy Blount (R-Mo.) with $133,100!

    But in strong second place showing is our apologist hero Joe Barton (R-Tex.)! Racking up an impressive one year score of $100,470.

    Both of these strong players will move on to final jeopardy. By their own hands. Their next nearest competitors rounding out the Top 5?

    Mike Ross (D-Ark.) $76,950
    Charles Melancon (D-La.) $65,500
    John Sullivan (R-Okla.) $65,250

    Priceless? Apparently not.

  10. @Buddha:

    Agreed; it was hardly a shakedown, if anything it was MORE corporatism by the Obama administration. Obama had the legal right to put American BP operations into temporary receivership and use 100% of their assets and employees at will. I am guessing that legal, Constitutional option was the leverage used to force their hand; the sociopaths at BP almost certainly chose the lesser of two evils. All I can do is guess, I imagine the options presented to them in the Oval Office will remain secret for our lifetimes. But there DID exist an even worse outcome (for BP) than this $20B pittance (versus a $7B per year fishing industry and multi-billion dollar tourist industry and facing a multi-year multi-billion dollar cleanup that will probably never restore the Gulf.)

  11. I’m sure glad no gum wrappers were lost.

    Only 11 lives, a huge chunk of the ecosystem and millions of animals impacted in addition to several layers of Louisiana’s local economy.

    But those gum wrappers all made it to safety.

    You betcha.

    Drill, baby, drill.

  12. It just keeps getting better from Barton. Check out this gem.

    “Offshore drilling and production platforms are so technologically advanced that one platform on the surface of the water can handle production from several different wells several miles apart, house a myriad of technologically advanced computer systems, employ scores of personnel, generate electricity, enable people to face and conquer the adversities of living in the middle of the ocean, and do so 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; all without so much as losing a gum wrapper over the side of the platform. It is truly amazing.”

    The venue at which he shared this bon mot of technical and actual misunderstanding of the facts?

    The opening hearing for the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality on April 29, 2004.

  13. And if I have offended anyone by my choice of strong language? That would be par for the course. Your cooperation in these matters is much appreciated.

  14. Fair warning though! The above satire is in no way meant to imply that what the citizens will find inside the piñatas will be candy. These bootlicking toadies are clearly full of shit, not candy.

  15. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said of BP Criminal Executive Officer Tony Hayward’s meeting with Obama that resulted in the woefully inadequate $20B escrow account, “I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy in the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown — in this case a $20 billion shakedown — with the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that’s unprecedented in our nation’s history, which has no legal standing, which I think sets a terrible precedent for our nation’s future.

    I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize,” Barton added. “I do not want to live in a county where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, [it is] subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.”

    Add to this Mississippi Governor and former lobbyist Haley Barbour’s (R.) comments, “If they take a huge amount of money and put it in an escrow account so they can’t use it to drill oil wells and produce revenue, are they going to be able to pay us?” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) bemoaned that Obama had an eye on taking over “private industry” on CNN. This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the lobby and campaign finance systems.

    It’s fascist/corporatist apologist bullshit like this that will eventually see to that government officials are going to used as piñatas by angry citizens. So you idiots just keep it up. Because what light through yon window breaks is not the dawn, but the eventual fires of revolution that fascism brings.

    Personally what surprises me is that these three graft weasels could be so wordy with Tony Hayward’s multi-shafted demon cock in their mouths. They say it’s “minty cash flavored”. Which makes selling out their citizen constituents taste better. Kinda like cake.

  16. I think this was an excellent article, and hits the nail pretty squarely on the head.
    I would say however, as an historian, that none of this is new. The technology – and therefore the speed with which people learn about, become upset about, and organize around issues – has certainly made the problem worse, but none of these issues are new. Look at what American colonists were saying about British governors, what workers were saying about management in the 19th century, what women were saying about men, African-Americans were saying about whites, poor have always said about rich. These exact same discussions and complaints have been going on for centuries, I think the only difference now is that more people – read white, middle-class men – are now also feeling like the underclass.

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