Law impacts American life from cradle to grave. In this, the most litigious country in the world, criminal law is dramatic television, from “Perry Mason” to “Judge Judy,” law remains America’s more mysterious and most precious possession. America’s belief in the so-called “rule of law” is similar to its elusive belief in equality; we acutely feel when it is absent. Comfortably watching law from afar, Americans, like spectators in the Roman coliseum, enjoy the battling gladiators. This year, however, the people joined the battles, as participants and protesters, in the drama of law.
Dominique Straus-Kahn, contender for the presidency of France, was arrested for allegedly raping Nafissatou Diallo, a maid, originally from Guinea, in the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. Diallo’s case was given little initial support by established women’s groups. The people, however, streamed into the streets to support her claim.
Despite evidence of sexual relations, the question of forced sexual assault was never taken to trial. Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., terminated the investigation, finding Diallo and her story less than credible. Women in America realized their safety under law was less than assured.
The Arab Spring protests for freedom began in Tunisia with one man, Mohamed Bouazizi. While Middle East protesters demanded the end to tyrannical dynasties, the Occupy Wall Street protesters defied rain, cold and reported police abuse to stand against the tyranny of uncontrolled wealth.
While in the Midwest, public workers, blamed for state deficits, protested en masse when states sought to derail collective bargaining rights. In America, protest rights stem from a combination of freedom of assembly, free speech and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The word — protest — is not found in the U.S. Constitution. However, the courage to protest is found deep within the American spirit.
Immigration drew protests. States, overwhelmed by illegal immigration, reacted with harsh anti-immigrant legislation. Local police departments became immigration and nationalization offices when police were given the extraordinary power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government, not the states, power over immigration.
The federal government, as well as individuals, brought lawsuits against this state encroachment on immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court must ultimately determine the constitutionality of these state immigration laws.
Out of apparent concern over voter fraud, Indiana, South Carolina and Alabama enacted laws requiring government-issued identification to vote. These voting laws, though facially innocent, could undermine any populist movements. The elderly, without valid driver’s licenses, would be turned away at the polls. The poor would be disproportionately affected, due to the cost of securing such identification.
Fearful of discrimination against people of color, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, using the Voting Rights Act, halted these identification requirements for voters. The highest Court will soon decide this identification issue. In the meantime, protests proceed.
The Iraq War ended. Thousands of service personnel are returning home from a devastated Iraq to a devastated American economy. Our veterans are in need of support, employment and assistance for wounds, seen and unseen. Troubled veterans, lashing out in apparent episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder, victimized others.
The law must now decide if this small minority of military personnel committing crimes due to war trauma is responsible for their actions.
Laws against unfair foreclosures brought some relief. Sadly, home-owners find their foreclosures may be due to racial bias as well as a poor economy. Bank of America is paying $335 million to settle its discrimination-in-lending case. Country-Wide, a unit of Bank of America, discriminated against 200,000 black and Latino homebuyers, charging higher fees and steering them to sub-prime loans. Whites, with the same credit, were not charged these fees or given sub-prime, unstable high interest loans.
Although the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission successfully convicted Wall Street bandits this year, America impatiently awaits the trial and conviction of those bankers responsible for upending this nation’s economy.
Troy Davis was executed for murder. Pope Benedict XVI and former President Jimmy Carter fought for Davis’ life. Davis, an African American, was convicted in the 1989 shooting death of Mark MacPhail, a white off-duty officer. Witnesses recanted. No gun was found. Yet, Davis’ death sentence was upheld by state and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis’ final stay of execution. That same day, in Texas, white supremacist Larry Brewer, the killer of James Byrd, an African American, was executed.
Brewer, who dragged Byrd to death behind his truck, had no regrets about the cold-blooded murder. However, in Davis’ case, reasonable doubts remained. Pleading his innocence to the end, Davis said to those preparing his body for death by lethal injection, “May God have mercy on your souls.”
Given law, like life, can be heart-wrenching; protests for peace are greatly appreciated.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is the director/founder of The Law and Policy Group, Inc., and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”