Friday, January 28, 2011

The Law Should Be Different For the Rich and Powerful

Tom Campbell, a Texas lawyer who once tried to unseat Tom DeLay in a Republican primary, engages in an interesting thought experiment, arguing that President Obama should pardon Tom DeLay. I have to assume that Campbell recognizes that there is no chance that DeLay will receive a pardon - a remedy normally not granted before a convicted criminal has completed his sentence and a subsequent five year waiting period, let alone where the offender displays no remorse and is openly contemptuous of the court and jury that convicted him. (Campbell argues that some of that scorn is deserved, but that's hardly the point.) Also, not even Lewis "Scooter" Libby received a pardon. It would take the right-wing noise machine all of two seconds to start bleating about how "Even President Obama understands that DeLay was railroaded by evil Democratic Party operatives."

Campbell attempts to draw a parallel between the odious Charles Rangel (or was I supposed to say "Charlie Rangel isn't a bad person?"), whose various ethical breaches earned him a stern, "You shouldn'ta oughta done that" from his colleagues in the House. A better comparison is to Dan Rostenkowski, who served time in prison and eventually got a pardon a few years before his waiting period would have been up. Or, if you're more charitable, to Scooter Libby whose commutation allowed him to avoid any chance of incarceration as he appealed his conviction.

Some of what Campbell writes is pretty typical of calls for leniency against middle class and white collar criminals - their peers often close circle. Campbell argues, "DeLay is not a bad man", which may be true but does not provide a basis for excusing somebody from a jail or prison sentence. It may not be fair to define a person by his worst acts and conduct, but that's what happens when you're tried for and convicted of a crime - your good acts are, at most, relevant to your sentence. I don't think Wesley Snipes is a "bad man", but off he went.

Another reason that people who are financially successful should avoid prison? Because "they've suffered enough" from their loss of prestige and position:
He has been punished enough. He lost his position as majority leader and his congressional seat. He lost his place on the national stage.
You think he deserves prison time? That's because only prison will "satisfy [your] vindictive desires". Never mind legislatively defined penalties, minimum sentences, sentencing guidelines, and how they impact others - if you argue that DeLay should be treated equally with other convicted offenders, and thus should be punished under laws and policies he helped fashion, it can only be because you're a big fat meanie. Meanwhile, the impact of incarceration on a "blue collar" criminal, or the ripple effects on his family? Who cares, right? DeLay is "one of us".

But really, a big part of the arguments in favor of people like Tom DeLay and Conrad Black is that they had teams of lawyers analyzing their moves and advising them how they could ostensibly push their conduct right up to the line of criminality without crossing it. I'm reminded of this every time we get a new essay from Conrad Black and his defenders - "Black looted his companies, fair and square." Yes, being rich and powerful enough to have your lawyers advise you as to how to legally siphon hundreds of millions or billions of dollars out of your company - and away from its shareholders - will make it much more difficult to identify a crime and to prosecute you. After all, if that weren't the case would you be spending millions of shareholder dollars on that advice in the first place? But at the end of the day what we're really talking about is a system in which the rich and powerful can game the system, loot their companies or the taxpayer, and walk away with billions - but if an ordinary person tries the same thing on a smaller scale, he'll probably be looking at jail or prison time. (But that's okay because he's probably a "bad person", right?)

Campbell offers an additional reason to pardon DeLay - he has powerful friends who might otherwise take revenge - "Prison will satisfy the vindictive desires of some but will trigger in others a desire for revenge". Aw heck, by that standard, let's just pardon everybody held at Guantanamo Bay.

1 comment:

  1. 1. It's always interesting to me how someone can do a whole piece on why a sentence is overly harsh and never talk about what the crime was - as opposed to what it wasn't.

    2. I don't have a problem with comparing Rangel to DeLay - I just draw a different lesson. (Not that DeLay's sentence was overly harsh, but that Rangel should have gone to jail.)



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