Sunday, January 31, 2010

Justice, the Law and the Problems Caused by their Association

The commentary I've read regarding the decision of the SCOTUS on the campaign financing law serves to support an opinion I've held for quite some time.  That is, that associating the law with justice is a fundamental error, albeit a common one.

Every practicing lawyer has encountered (and dreads) the client who engages in litigation driven by the belief that they are right, and their opponent wrong, and more often than not evil.  Such clients are usually eager to go to trial, to punish the wrongdoer and achieve the just result they expect from any impartial judge or jury.  Any effort to persuade them that a trial won't determine who is right and who is wrong, and will at best tell them what the law provides for under the circumstances, which may not be the same thing, is futile.

Those of us who are not lawyers naturally tend to think of court decisions as right or wrong.  Those of us who are lawyers often think of them in that way too; but we recognize that what is right and what is wrong is not the issue decided by the court.  What is decided is what the law says about the situation.  This, at least, is the ideal.  Judges are human, and their personal beliefs will often intrude in their decision.  But prior case law, the rule of precedent, the rules of statutory construction, and other rules and aspects of the vast body of the law make it difficult for judges to render decisions based solely on personal preference.  They exist, in part, due to a justifiable desire that judges refrain from imposing their personal preferences (and be "impartial").  In this fashion, decisions rendered are to some extent predictable and uniform, which is deemed desirable in a system developed to regulate social conduct.

Considerartions of what is just, what is right or wrong, often inform legislation, and appropriately so.  When legislators become too concerned with such considerations, however, and vote solely based on their personal moral beliefs, we get bad laws, like Prohibition.

So, I've felt that much of the commentary I've read on the recent decision is too often an expression of outrage, and rather lacking in analysis and understanding of the legal issues involved.  Those who believe the decision, and the majority of the court in this case, corrupt and evil would I think be surprised if they read the decision, and especially the dissents.  They would find that even the dissenters approach the issue very differently than they do, because they are considering the application of the law, not what is right and what is wrong.

The right of free speech is accorded such significance in our law that there is a presumption the right should prevail in most circumstances.  Government may regulate it only to the extent that there exists some compelling interest which requires the regulation.  Those who seek the regulation have the burden of establishing that it is compelling.  Claiming corporations should not have free speech rights is a simplistic response to the issues involved in the decision.  Generally, those who make such an assertion find themselves in something of a bind when asked whether non-profit corporations formed as citizens groups, to promote a particular political and social agenda, should have such rights.  And, since the media largely operates through the corporate form, denying such rights to corporations generally becomes problematic.  When one starts picking and choosing corporations which should and should not have such rights, things get very interesting indeed.

Assessing this decision (and the law generally) solely from the standpoint of what we personally believe is just, therefore, is not particularly useful.  It should be assessed as a legal decision, i.e. based on the law.  The law in this case happens to be the Constitution and a great mass of case law, applied to the campaign finacing law.  If the decision doesn't appropriately analyze or apply the law, the pertinent question is what to do about it.  When that question is realistically addressed, the options are change the Constitution, rewrite the law in question or adopt new laws drafted to avoid the decision, or wait for the decision to be overturned. 

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