Opinion

Opinion

Rule of law must thrive, apply to all

Posted May 26, 2018 12:07 a.m. EDT

There's something especially fitting about Harvey Weinstein appearing in handcuffs just as Americans began to celebrate Memorial Day weekend, a time when we're more likely than usual to consider our freedom and the values that define our nation.

Weinstein's arrest on rape charges speaks to one of America's foundational principles - the precepts that generations of our forebears have been willing to die for. None of those principles can be seen as more important than the rule of law. Finally, the law seems to have caught up with Harvey Weinstein.

Here he is, one of Hollywood's most successful producers ever, whose movies won 81 Academy Awards, who palled around with presidents and megastars and whose net worth is said to be a quarter of a billion dollars. Yet for all that wealth and influence, on Friday he faced criminal charges that, if proven, could put him behind bars for years and leave him at risk for civil penalties that could reallocate all that money to his victims.

Weinstein has some advantages, mind you, that the other kids he grew up with in a working-class neighborhood of Queens might not enjoy. He can afford very expensive lawyers who will have plenty of time to shape a powerful defense, rather than a harried, court-appointed lawyer carrying a caseload that forces only superficial representation. His bail allows him to relax at his posh homes in New York and Connecticut, rather than in a jail cell, waiting months for a shot at arguing his innocence at trial.

In fact, given the evidence alleging criminal behavior already publicly available, Weinstein should thank his lucky stars that he's an American citizen, which gives him a fighting chance to live out his days in peace rather than being stoned or strung up without trial, or maybe thrown into a dank cell where he might learn a thing or two about sexual assault from a different perspective than he seems to have experienced it before.

We are taught in school to respect the rule of law, because in America, we learn, the law applies equally to all - that is, as John Adams put it succinctly, ours is "a government of laws and not of men." That means the rich and the powerful are no more immune to prosecution than any ordinary American.

This concept is being put to the test in Washington these days, however, by a president who on one hand insists on the rule of law - as when he expresses outrage over immigrants who came to America without legal permission - but who on the other hand does all he can to undermine the independence of the legal structure that might hold even him accountable to the law for his possible misdeeds.

The office of president is clearly the top position of political authority in our nation, but respect for the rule of law in no way requires deference to that authority. Rather, it is for the president to defer to the law, however frustrating or inconvenient he may find it.

A president who respects the law wouldn't be trying to undermine confidence in our nation's justice system by claiming that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence services are rigged. Patriotic respect for the law from a president wouldn't manifest itself in a demand for loyalty from the deputy attorney general and the FBI director, nor in an insistence that he is immune not only from criminal prosecution but also from conflict-of-interest standards that other presidents have recognized.

In fact, our Founding Fathers intentionally subjugated the national executive to constitutional authority, in keeping with Aristotle's dictum, "It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens."

Yet Donald Trump has weapons for his fight that Harvey Weinstein lacks for his own. Millions of his partisans believe what the president tells them, disregarding his decades-long record of exaggerations, deceptions and outright fabrications. A claque of Trump-admiring media feed the faithful a daily diet of distortion, with support from a servile congressional majority more dedicated to holding power than holding the powerful to account.

You can almost imagine Weinstein figuring he has gotten a raw deal compared with that other guy from Queens, Trump. The brave women who revealed their assaults by Weinstein in The New Yorker and in what the president calls "the failing New York Times" a year ago ignited an overdue cultural upheaval rather than eliciting just a societal shrug. There is no media cabal defending Harvey Weinstein, nor a posse in Congress happy to overlook his misdeeds. Lucky Donald, Harvey must think.

Yet it seems impossible that we would easily discard that cardinal principle of the rule of law. Brave Americans died for it. We honor them by upholding it.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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