Guest Column: Steven
There was this call for help… I chose numbers five and fifteen… then figured I’d better combine the two. I’m not certain I’m the “expert” Tom suggests, but I’m sure happy to at least address a portion of our legal system and crime and punishment. This is a bit of an extended essay – please stick with me! A great video by Bill Whittle, an awesome cartoon… what could go wrong? So then, here goes:
I learned early that it is sometimes imprudent to “volunteer” oneself for anything. In fact, when I joined the Navy (thinking “navy” was actually a word describing an armed fleet) I discovered that the word navy is actually an acronym! Never Again Volunteer Yourself. Though that was often said tongue-in-cheek, the underlying thought that bad things happen when you volunteer never strayed far from our minds – especially in troubled waters.
That’s where I find myself here, trying to write something on crime and punishment and our legal system… troubled waters. First, it’s a huge subject with a wealth of material when it comes to deciding where to place one’s vote. Second, our country has strayed so far from the “Common Law” of our country’s birth that discussing any portion of contract, tort or criminal law is often fraught with built in misunderstandings because of several differences: education, ethnicity, and birthright to name a prominent few. Third, and last, the consequence of the criminal law in our country is almost a taboo subject… Prisons.
To try and pull these disparate parts together, and to focus our attention on “what we’re looking for in a representative,” I’m going to jump in to the middle of things and hope for the best… in other words, “let the chips fall where they may.” Up front full disclosure – I am a correctional officer working for the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) and the views expressed here are mine alone. Additionally, much of the material I’ll draw from is found in the links at the end of this article. So then, here is the first jump into the middle of things:
Let’s try a definition or three.
Rule of Law: “The rule of law does not have a precise definition, and its meaning can vary between different nations and legal traditions. Generally, however, it can be understood as a legal-political regime under which the law restrains the government by promoting certain liberties and creating order and predictability regarding how a country functions. In the most basic sense, the rule of law is a system that attempts to protect the rights of citizens from arbitrary and abusive use of government power.” [6&7]
Now this next definition may draw the ire of some fellow conservatives – so be it. A common wailing in the conservative ranks is that the legislature, not the judiciary, creates law. Our legal heritage derives from the English common law, and for circumstances not covered by statute, judges did indeed create law in what was known as a “court of equity.” So let’s be careful with our hand wringing when it comes to judicial decisions, and be reasonably certain that a situation is either covered by statute or is unconstitutional.
Common Law: That which derives its force and authority from the universal consent and immemorial practice of the people. The system of jurisprudence that originated in England and which was later adopted in the U.S. that is based on precedent instead of statutory laws. 
Common Law, also known as case law, or precedent, is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action. A “common law system” is a legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions.  (emphasis mine)
And third, the notion of fairness (I greatly admire Thomas Sowell, and the notion of fairness is covered in links 1-4 below) as it commonly gets thrown around is NOT how I will be using the word myself.
Fairness: equity, conformity with rules or standards, or the ability to make judgments free from discrimination and dishonesty . According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), definition #4, being fair connotes behaving “equitably, honestly, impartially, justly: according to rule.”
In other words, according to philosopher John Rawls, I believe in merely “formal fairness.” That’s right. In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls popularized the notion of “social justice.” Now some may quibble here, but Rawls’ notion of “distributive justice” focused on outcomes… and he ruined the word fairness for an entire generation and beyond. What do I mean?
Professor Rawls advocated “a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstances.” He called for a society which “arranges” end results, rather than simply treating everyone the same and letting the chips fall where they may .
When we speak of “leveling the playing field,” let’s make sure our representatives mean that when the ball field gets leveled, it is so anyone playing is running on the same grade! We do not mean handicapping a superior athlete so he’ll be “equal,” or run only as fast as the slowest member of the team. With these thoughts in mind, watch the following video, please! I think you’ll appreciate just how important Bill Whittle’s reiteration of Richard Maybury’s “Two Laws” at about 6:10 is!
The foundation of our model is the two laws that make civilization possible: do all you have agreed to do and, do not encroach on other persons or their property. The first is the basis of contract law, the second, the basis of tort law and some criminal law. ~Richard Maybury
That should boil the big mess of our legal system down to a few elements worth looking at when reviewing candidates for office. Now let me take the time to quote Tom on his very concise thoughts on questions for Topic #5 – Law/Legal System:
We have too many laws. We would do well to have candidates who campaign on the basis of laws they will repeal more than on those they will write. If we do not fund the enforcement of a law, what is the point of passing the law? That only breeds more scofflaws. I think we should look at our court system and consider courts as a tool of last resort, after mediation and arbitration. I would welcome incentives towards mediation and against going to court.
What a word! Scofflaws. The OED reports that there was a contest “…for a word to characterize the lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” Ahhhh, a law that wasn’t obeyed for reasons left to the reader. The OED then provides this: “One who treats the law with contempt, esp. a person who avoids various kinds of not easily enforceable laws.” Both Tom and Bill state the obvious problems with too many laws… so, let’s not defund laws. Let’s get them off the books if they’re not worth the considerable amount of paper they’re printed on!
Phew!! Crime and punishment anyone?! Considering what we’ve just covered, I am only going to mention a few things. The Duke Rape Case. Beer Summit. Panthergate. In all of these, some element of the rule of law, the common law, or fairness was obviously violated. Worse, they were violated for the very reasons our political masters campaigned to fix… oops, I meant political servants of the people of course. How much really needs to be said here? Crime and punishment? Seriously? The cartoon and the Washington Post quote say more than enough and provide a starting point for anyone interested in the lack of justice in the Obama Department of Justice.
Three Justice Department lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their supervisors, described the same tensions, among career lawyers as well as political appointees. Employees who worked on the Brown case were harassed by colleagues, they said, and some department lawyers anonymously went on legal blogs “absolutely tearing apart anybody who was involved in that case,” said one lawyer.
“There are career people who feel strongly that it is not the voting section’s job to protect white voters,” the lawyer said. “The environment is that you better toe the line of traditional civil rights ideas or you better keep quiet about it, because you will not advance, you will not receive awards and you will be ostracized.”
- The Fallacy of Fairness: Part I
- ‘Fairness’ in Education (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part II)
- Rawls and Fairness (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part III)
- Innate Superiority: An Inferior Idea (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part IV)
- Washington Post confirms politics comes before justice at Obama DOJ
- Wiki: The Rule of Law
- University of Iowa: What is the Rule of Law?
- LectLaw: Common Law
- Wiki: Common Law
- Princeton Wordnet: Fairness