Fear and loathing at Columbia Law
It’s mostly the people in charge who are failing us and not behaving like competent adults. Let’s start with the criminal law, which catalogs offenses against the people. At the top of my list is the officer who arrested a Florida sixth grader on a felony weapons charge when a butter knife was found in her backpack. How about the school administration which attempted to justify this arrest, on the basis of a “zero tolerance” rule?
And now, of course, the tragic attempted arrest and death of a New York man who was suspected of selling loose untaxed cigarettes. Not rape, murder, armed robbery or even bilking seniors out of their life’s earnings, but an arrest for minor tax evasion, which is reportedly as common a crime committed by public officials as jaywalking.
Related is this week’s news that Columbia Law School is allowing its students to postpone their exams this month if they feel traumatized by the non-indictment of either the officer who administered the fatal choke hold on the man in the grasp of the law on the sidewalks of New York, or who fired the fatal shots in Ferguson. Of course, either situation could possibly prove to be a miscarriage of justice, and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of these matters.
The interim dean of the law school was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying:
The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.
That’s right. The law school administration suggests that if you don’t agree with the outcome in a criminal proceeding under the criminal justice system — which has been developed and refined over time to protect fairness, due process and equality — you can behave as if you just lost a member of your family. In the Ferguson case, almost every spokesman for a group equated justice with indictment, and non-indictment with lack of justice.
There is a deeper problem here, and it will take a while to sort out. We have subcontracted out nearly all decisions about ethics and right and wrong to lawyers, who don’t obviously have a better innate moral compass or capacity for making those distinctions than the rest of us. They depend on the process we use today, a legal system built up literally over centuries in the United States and England. What we sometimes find is that it wasn’t the law that was the problem, it was the misapplication of the law by the people in charge.
Why is it so easy to believe that with the entire nation and civilized world looking on, the two grand juries neglected their sworn duty to look at all the evidence in the two cases, including the protocols for law enforcement engagement with citizens? Columbia Law chose to question “the integrity of the grand jury system and the law generally,” but it offered no thoughts on what we we use to replace that system. Mob rule and lynchings? An eye for an eye? We’ve tried all that, and we thought we had made improvements. But every legal system created is only as good as the people in charge.
For that matter, why has Columbia Law not granted days off to its student-lawyers who are traumatized by scary new uses of the Internal Revenue Service to silence people the administration doesn’t like? Or by the specter of an American president ignoring his constitutional authority and oath of office to execute the law of the land?
I guess the lesson Columbia is teaching is that respect for the law depends on one’s sensitivities.