Friday, June 25, 2010

Rights for Crooks and Rights for All

The headlines for this week's Supreme Court ruling in the prosecution of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling all took the tone of Slate's "It's a Great Day to be a CEO." But what the court did in curtailing "honest services fraud" prosecutions protects all of us from arbitrary government action. The NY Times:

Passed in 1988, the law made it a federal crime, under the mail-fraud statute, “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Intangible was right; almost no one knew what the phrase actually meant. Prosecutors most often used it when they suspected that a politician had done something wrong but were not sure they could prove outright bribery or corruption.

In the dubious 2007 prosecution, for example, of Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama, the Justice Department claimed that a political contribution to a campaign to adopt a state lottery was actually a bribe to get Mr. Siegelman to appoint the contributor to a hospital board.

Since Mr. Siegelman, a Democrat, never actually received any money, the bribery case was hard to make. Instead, he was convicted of five counts of honest services fraud, one of bribery and one of obstruction.
I regard the prosecution of Siegelman as a vicious legal coup stage managed by Karl Rove and other Republican operatives. How many important politicians in American have never done anything to help their campaign contributors? If Siegelman's conviction stands (it is on appeal, and this ruling should help him), every American politician will be in danger of the the same sort of attack. The existence of vague laws giving prosecutors the power to go after garden variety backslapping is a danger to all of us, and the court's ruling makes all of us more secure.

Too bad Jeffrey Skilling won't be serving his whole jail sentence. But court rulings that protect the rights of the accused often involve scumbags. A system that truly protects the innocent protects the guilty, too.

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