The Trayvon Martin Case and the Rule of Law

The death of Florida black teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman has generated millions of words, nearly all predictable (for example, see here).  It is almost as if a contest is being held to see who could be the most outraged.

Unfortunately, this rhetorical outpouring displays a profound disregard to one of the cornerstones of American life, if not of Western civilization itself: a respect for the rule of law -- that is, the idea that explicit publicly known law, not personal views or impromptu whims, is decisive, and that these laws are applied systematically according to certain specified procedures with little room for individual discretion.  Of the utmost importance, the law is applied regardless of personal characteristics -- that is, apart from sex, age, race, or wealth, unless special treatment is legally specified (e.g., the treatment of children).

Absolutely nobody is mounting the public soapbox and saying, "Yes, there may be an injustice here, but if there is one, it is best handled by the criminal justice system and not by irate, ill-informed demonstrators demanding that alleged culprits, including local law enforcement officials, be summarily punished without any legal safeguards."  To be blunt, the Trayvon Martin incident increasingly resembles something one might expect in lawless Pakistan or Somalia -- enraged rabble marching through the streets searching from some alleged perpetrator of some rumored crime so as to dispense on-the-spot justice.    

The most unfortunate aspect of this lapse is that prominent political figures who certainly must know better have embraced this mob mentality.  President Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, offers perhaps the most egregious example of this "who needs tedious legal proceedings to achieve justice now?" mentality.  He could have used his position to tell -- perhaps even lecture -- the American public that Martin's shooting had already been investigated by the police and that this process had numerous safeguards to insure that criminal acts were properly punished and that personal opinions about guilt or innocence should wait until all the relevant information is at hand.

Instead, as is well-known, he used his position to tell the American public that if he had a son, that son would be like Trayvon, as if this skin-deep resemblance exonerated Trayvon from any possible wrongdoing.  Moreover, though Trayvon was depicted as a model student, Mr. Martin was killed while on a five-day suspension from school, and he had been suspended before on charges that included drug use and possession of burglary tools and women's jewelry.  A little research would have shown him to be a troubled youngster -- not exactly an Obama Jr.  

Moreover, recalling the O.J. Simpson case, the president might have advised the distraught Martin family to file a wrongful death suit against Zimmerman (or the home owners' association) rather than challenge a verdict about which he knew little. 

The president also said that he welcomed a federal and state investigation into the shooting -- an odd call, since such shootings undoubtedly number in the tens of thousands every year, none of which receive federal scrutiny.  The underlying "logic" here seems to be that the legal relationship between  individual states and the federal government is not governed by the Constitution or laws made under the Constitution.  Instead, this complex relationship is to be decided by (a) the racial characteristics of the alleged perpetrator and victim and (b) the emotional rage among people who generally have zero knowledge of what actually occurred, let alone of the Florida laws that guided the police inquest.

Imagine Professor Obama teaching the above "principle" to his law school students at the University of Chicago.  Or, going one step farther and consistent with what President Obama has said, he would tell his students that if the first outcome does not placate those who disagree with it, instigate additional investigations until "justice is served."  (The U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Florida are now conducting new investigations, and the more investigations launched, obviously, the greater the likelihood of finding something.)

President Obama is hardly alone in his pandering to the "verdict first, trial afterwards" crowd.  Mitt Romney similarly called for a thorough investigation as if Florida in 2012 somehow resembled rural Mississippi of the 1930s, where black people could never receive fair treatment.  Was Mr. Romney aware of some specific defects in the way the case was handled?  Did local law enforcement hide evidence, intimidate eyewitnesses into silence, or otherwise improperly reach a conclusion of no crime committed?  If Mitt knows of such injustices, it is his legal obligation to come forward with them.

Romney's rival, Rick Santorum, goes even farther in subordinating the rule of law to pandering.  In his opinion, the police were wrong not to arrest the shooter, and law enforcement had made "horrible decisions" (his words) in handling the case.  While I cannot say so for sure, I strongly suspect that when Rick Santorum spoke these words, he could not pass the Florida bar exam (let alone correctly interpret its 2005 "Stand Your Ground" Law).  Nor did he have access to all the police records and legal precedents upon which all these "horrible decisions" were made.   

The outrage surrounding the Trayvon Martin case is unsurprising.  The likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson can always be counted on to claim "genocide" or something equally preposterous whenever a black person is killed by a white, especially a white police officer.  What is remarkable is that those who surely must know better (and this certainly includes President Obama and other elected officials) go along with this stir-the-racial-passions opportunism.  It is almost as if they are ashamed of the American legal system when it reaches a decision that outrages many blacks.  They are basically agreeing with firebrands who insist that American is so deeply racist that blacks can never get a fair shake, so don't even bother with sham legal proceedings -- the fix is in, so let's start the angry demonstrations now!

There is an incredible irony here that deserves mention: the rule of law is the great protector of racial and ethnic minorities.  Undermining it to achieve a momentarily favorable judicial outcome is a horrific choice.  Imagine the fate of African-Americans and Hispanics if verdicts in racially charged cases (for example, a gruesome interracial murder or a gang rape) were put to a popular vote?  If one has any doubts about how such a system might work, just ask those NAACP lawyers who sought to advance black rights during the 1950s in the American South.  It was an open secret that fairness was next to impossible in state and local courts, especially in jury cases.  Civil rights lawyers knew that their only chance lay in getting their case into federal court, the Fifth Circuit, where largely Republican judges who enjoyed lifetime tenure could decide cases on their legal merits, not the whim of the locally elected district attorney afraid that locals voters would call him a n***er-lover. 

Let me suggest that the next time black leaders like Jesse Jackson demand that African-Americans enjoy some special right to override the legal process to achieve "racial justice," they should be forced to read about the "Scottsboro Boys."  Here nine young Alabama blacks were falsely accused of raping two white girls (a white witness later recanted his accusation).  Nevertheless, there were three trials (two of which had all-white juries, and one jury had a single black).  There were angry lynch mobs and calls for violence, and eight of the nine received a death sentence.  Eventually, after these trials, four of the original nine were found guilty and given sentences ranging from 75 years to death.  In retrospect, the entire process was clearly a miscarriage of justice, a textbook illustration of what can happen when the rule of law is subordinated to racial hate.  It has taken centuries for many Americans to reap the benefits of the rule law; let's not surrender it so quickly.