Are the Rich Above the Law?

Matt YglesiasWhen I was first introduced to the Magna Carta when I was in school, it made no sense to me. I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that at one point, the King of England was literally beyond the law. Because that’s basically all that the Magna Carta says: you can’t just kill us. (“Us,” of course, being the feudal lords, not the “little” people.) This is interesting, because I often argue that today, the United States is moving toward a feudal system. But at least we have rights and no one is above the law, right? Well, maybe not.

After O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, many people I knew groused about how he only got off because of his million dollar legal defense. I was not a fan of Simpson, but I countered this argument. The problem was not that Simpson got a great legal defense; it was that not all defendants get that kind of legal defense. Under normal circumstances, it is the prosecution that basically has unlimited resources. It was really nice to see things evened up and that is the way it should always be.

That subject has come up again in the trial of George Zimmerman. Matt Yglesias wrote a brilliant article, What if George Zimmerman Had a Public Defender? His conclusion is that in that case, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even gone to trial. He would have done as 94% of all those with state charges have done: he would have pleaded down and taken a manslaughter charge. His point is not that justice would have been done in that case or even that it was done with his good defense. No, his point is more general about the state of our justice system.

Yglesias asks the question, “Why has no one been indicted for the financial crisis?” And the answer is basically: because those guys won’t plead. If you thought the defense that Zimmerman bought for $300,000 was good, you ought to see the kind of defense that $10 million would buy. And the truth is that our “justice” system is not set up to deal with defendants who can mount a vigorous defense. On the federal level it is even worse: 97% of the cases are pleaded.

This makes me wonder if we aren’t further toward a feudal system than I had previously thought. It isn’t that the rich can’t be convicted of crimes. It is just that the government doesn’t even much try. Our laws and institutions have grown so long in the tooth that they simply can’t handle prosecuting people who don’t lay down. And the only people who can afford to fight back are the rich. So we are left with a system where we have rights and opportunity in theory. But as a practical matter, we are no better off than we were in the 13th century.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Are the Rich Above the Law?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Then politicians and political operatives use the statistics that are generated from this corrupt system to "prove" certain groups are "dangerous."
    I have always given the advice: "if you are going to be a criminal, go big. Rob a liquor store-go to jail, Steal a million bucks-four months in "club fed" and a book deal.

  2. You’re wrong, Mr. Moraes – it’s not feudalism we’re regressing towards – it’s manorialism.

  3. @Blakenator – That’s true. And I thought that Yglesias’ take on why we don’t indict the rich was very good. It does make me think that our justice system has always been based on the idea that it would never hold the wealthy accountable.

  4. Well, Mr. (Ms?!) Blair, I’ll go for that. But feudalism is a more general term. Plus: everyone knows what it means! ;-)

  5. Actually, when the government prosecutes white collar criminals, they generally DO plead — because the feds only indict the cases they’re sure they can win. What is different is that those white collar criminals hire attorneys who can argue down the crimes pleaded to and the sentence imposed. Public defenders do thankless work not helped by this kind of reductivism — the reason for the pleading is because there’s not another option except trial, which the defendant will probably lose due to the evidence against him or her, and the extraordinary latitude courts have given to police to ignore the 4th Amendment. Many people even plead to crimes they haven’t committed in order to get a definite sentence rather than risk what they’ll get if they’re convicted on the indictment. Pleading is the only way many defendants have to exert any control over their situtation at all, given the above-noted resources of the prosecution.

  6. @gregoire7 – Good point. But most white collar criminals are not multi-millionaires. Certainly if a bunch of middle class white collar workers had done the kind of damage that the rich did in the financial crisis, there would have been endless indictments. Similarly, if a low level Fed employee had allowed the housing bubble to grow to its enormous proportions as Alan Greenspan did, he would have at least lost his job. The broader issue here is just the widely held belief that the rich and powerful didn’t mean any harm. I’m working on an article about Bradley Manning right now where the court will not drop the charges indicating that he knowingly provided aid to the enemy. He’s a little guy; we’re all for assuming the worst about them and crushing them.

  7. The law is written so as to invite "error". Those who have no media attention during their trials run the risk that the court will "err" to the benefit of the prosecution. Courts will play fast and loose with the law during trial to the detriment of defendants. But when it comes to writs and appeals the courts play hardball. Less than one percent of writs gain any traction.

    Dostoevsky wrote that if you want to understand a society you should look inside its prisons.

    "The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large" – Ralph Arons, former warden of Marion.

    The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population but twenty-five percent of it’s prisoners. You are not safe. The "fair" trial is a myth for the vast majority.

    Last but not least, drones and traitors are selected as jurors.

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