On power, money, influence and the so-called justice system

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Every once in a while, someone writes something about the lack of respect the public for the United States judicial system and justice and wonders why it is held in such low regard.

Of course, lawyers usually are the main ones doing the writing.

I wonder if any of those prognosticators ever took a good look at what the American public sees going on in the so-called justice system. I doubt it.

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Good examples of what makes folks cynical about justice in the American system have taken place in recent days.

Paris Hilton marched off to jail all terribly shaken, with tears in her voice, that she would have to pay for violating rules the court handed down to her in an earlier case. Of course, her sentence was cut from 45 days to 23 days before she even checked in and somehow I don’t expect her to spend all 23 days in jail.

Of course, she’s being housed in a special section of the jail to shield her from the ordinary offenders and allowed other special privileges.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice by lying about his part in, or knowledge of, how Valerie Plame came to be identified as a CIA operative. Still more surprisingly, the judge pretty well gave him the maximum sentence of 30 months and a $250,000 fine for his crimes, but wait. Libby, even more than Hilton, is likely to become proof of the privilege of power.

The judge could hand down that sentence and seem like a real supporter of justice with the full knowledge that President George Bush probably will pardon him, which means that Libby probably won’t spend much, if any, of that sentence in jail and won’t have to pay the fine.

With friends in high enough places, convicts have a home-free card.

Libby and Hilton are far from the first convicts with enough power and influence to prevent the full implementation of justice. Former President Bill Clinton’s enemies, and many others, were quite angry with him for his pardons, especially for one seen as a political pay back.

Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, which actually was probably the right thing to do because it quieted the furor over Nixon’s crimes and brought the nation some measure of peace, probably cost him election to the office of president, an office he held only because Nixon had appointed him vice president after the indictment of Spiro Agnew on corruption charges.

I won’t go into Rep. William Jefferson’s case here because it has not yet gone to trial, except to say that it, too, appears to be an abuse of power and privilege.

Researching presidential pardons and light sentences handed down to wealthy and influential people probably could turn up many more examples in the American system of justice flipped on its head.

Add to that the seemingly onerous sentences handed down to some convicts of ordinary circumstances for what appear to be relatively minor crimes, serious criminals that are allowed to plea out to relatively minor crimes and people such as O.J. Simpson who seem literally to have gotten away with murder and you have painted a picture of what most ordinary people see when they look at the American judicial system.

Justice in the American system appears to be measured by how much money an offender has to avoid it in some cases. In others, such as the Libby case, it appears to be how influential your friends are.

Libby maintains his innocence, but even the CNN legal commentator, lawyer Jeffrey Toobin, seemed shocked at the sentence due to Libby’s influence. That shock speaks volumes to me about how even lawyers view our system. Obviously they believe that the rich, famous, powerful and influential shouldn’t have to face the same sentences, even when they are convicted, as ordinary people.

The thing is, crimes committed by these rich, famous, powerful and influential people are magnified in damage they do because of the privileges they possess. They are rich, famous, powerful and influential because ordinary people made them that way by either buying in to what they were selling or trusting them to do tasks related to the public in an honorable way, even when some portion of the public disagrees with their views.

There probably ought to be a separate, more serious charge of violating the public trust that carries a really long sentence that is mandatory and non-pardonable for those convicted of violating that trust, which is really what happened in Libby’s case.

Again, as with just about anything that would negatively impact anyone who might fall into the category of rich, famous, powerful and influential, this is unlikely to happen.

Guess who makes the law? They also are the ones, generally, who bemoan the lack of respect for the American system of justice.