Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Law Day: Respect the laws... or repeal them

May 1 is Law Day in the U.S.A. Whatever the paranoid Cold War origins of the observance (it was intended as a red-white-and-blue substitute for that Commie-tainted workers' holiday, May Day) it is a good opportunity for all of us to pause and reflect on how important, how vital our legal system is as the guardian of our American freedoms.

It is also an opportunity to stop and think about laws themselves -- and what they should be.

America breaks down irrevocably if, as a society, we lose respect for the law. In specific instances this has already happened.

It happened nearly 100 years ago when Prohibition was imposed. Many otherwise law-abiding people simply refused to obey this one: Speakeasies... and gangsters... flourished. People who publicly favored Prohibition did not obey the law either: Liquor flowed freely at the Harding White House. Many in the upper classes thought that Prohibition provided a good dose of discipline for the working class, but the 'better sort' did not need that discipline -- or to stop drinking. Eventually, Prohibition had to be abandoned.

The so-called "War on Drugs" hasn't yet been abandoned, although cracks are finally beginning to appear in places like Colorado. But for decades now, draconian penalties against everything from pot smoking to heroin use haven't halted drug usage -- and the children of middle and upper class families seem always to fare better when picked up on drug charges than poor or working class kids. One judge's nomination for the United States Supreme Court was derailed when it was revealed that he regularly smoked marijuana with students while a member of the Harvard Law School faculty. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush acknowledged drug use that -- had they been caught and prosecuted -- would have effectively ended their political careers before they began. (Bill Clinton admitted smoking marijuana as well -- but denied that he inhaled. Mmm hmm.)

We now pass laws we don't intend to -- or can not -- enforce. My favorite example (probably because it impacted me directly at the time) was raising the drinking age to 21. (It was 19 in Illinois, 18 in many of the surrounding states.) I recall one legislator insisting that this wasn't meant to keep college kids from drinking; rather, it was to keep booze out of high schools. But... wait... most college kids don't turn 21 until they are juniors or seniors. Maybe the honorable gentleman had a bit of a load on when he made these remarks; maybe his remarks were symptomatic of the institutional hypocrisy that threatens to undermine respect for the law.

In my lifetime, attitudes have hardened against drunk drivers. The problem is that drunk drivers don't just kill themselves, they too often take innocent lives with them. Or, worse, they survive -- and wipe out whole families. So we pass increasingly harsh laws against drunk driving, lowering the blood alcohol content levels at which a driver is considered legally drunk and increasing fines and imposing longer, and often mandatory jail terms on persons convicted. We want to get drunks off the road, right? But people with money -- and people who have responsible jobs and families often have money -- and may be sympathetic to boot, especially if they didn't hurt anyone before they were pinched -- aren't convicted. Charges are thrown out on this technicality or that one, or plea deals to lesser charges are accepted -- and too many people who should have gotten help to control their alcohol problems go scot-free... until they T-bone the homecoming queen and her date on prom night. But anyone who suggests scaling penalties in a more reasonable way is committing political suicide -- one can't be seen as 'soft' on drunk driving.

Laws against cellphone usage while driving are taking the worst from the Prohibition and drunk driving playbooks: We pass absolute laws against cellphone usage in cars, but we have no intention of enforcing these laws. Stand on any street corner and watch the cars pass by. Even in cites or states with an absolute ban, it is rare to see someone drive by who is not on the phone. Clearly, many otherwise law-abiding people don't think the bans apply to them. Texting is worse than talking, but stupid people think that keeping the phone in their lap will keep them from being seen -- as they compose texts and weave all over the roadway. But outright bans and increasingly harsh penalties will not end this behavior.

Those terrible commercials one sees everywhere -- a severely injured person explaining his last text, shattered parents recalling their daughter's last text -- are more likely to build consensus over time than any number of laws. In the meantime... why not simplify the law and allow police the opportunity to charge erratic drivers with 'distracted driving' whether they talking are on their phone, texting, or entirely caught up in singing the new Taylor Swift song that's come on the radio?

We must work to repeal (or modify) laws that are widely ignored. Leaving laws on the books that we don't mean to follow, or that we enforce sporadically or selectively, undermines the rule of law in this country.

There may be no stauncher opponent of abortion in government than Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Yet Ryan recently said that pro-lifers should not lobby for more anti-abortion laws. He has, apparently, come to realize that merely passing an anti-abortion law, or even an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, will not deter determined women from seeking abortions. The goal should not be to make abortion illegal, he said, but rather to make it unthinkable. Change attitudes first, then worry about the law.

You may disagree with Rep. Ryan's objective, but he's got the right approach: Change minds, build consensus, then pass laws. In the long run, that approach furthers the rule of law far more than passing laws to make statements or score political points or show 'toughness' to the voters.

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