Do laws even matter today?

[Our leaders] 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.

By Jonathan Turley
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

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Posted in American Politics, Federal government, Legal, Op/Ed

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