Why conservatives applaud the John Edwards not guilty verdict

Why conservatives applaud the John Edwards not guilty verdict

[Originally published in the inaugural dead-tree version issue of the Times News of Brookhaven (DeKalb County), Georgia]

Most campaign finance laws, other than those requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures, violate free speech rights under the First Amendment and foster the nefarious criminalization of politics

“I think he definitely had some knowledge of where the money was going,’’ juror Ladonna Foster told Matt Lauer. “The evidence wasn’t there.’’

After nine days of deliberations over six campaign finance law charges against the former 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, Ladonna Foster and her 11 juror colleagues acquitted John Edwards of the main charge of accepting an allegedly illegal campaign contribution of $375,000, and, surprisingly to some, earning kudos from most conservative legal quarters.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial from her Greensboro, N.C. courtroom after the jury was unable to reach the required unanimous verdict on the remaining five charges which formed the basis for the government’s claim against the former U.S. Senator from the Tar Heel state of a “$1M campaign cover-up”.

Former Reagan Justice Department lawyer, now the head of the Landmark Legal Foundation and one of the most listened to conservative radio talk show hosts, Mark Levin praised the verdict:

“…the John Edwards mistrial had nothing to do with campaign finance abuse but rather it was about a federal prosecutor once again overstepping his role and abusing his power…this case had no merit because there was no law broken here.”

So why all the Republican “love” for the slick trial lawyer and adulterous betrayer of his then cancer-riddled (now deceased) wife Elizabeth, from Levin, Hugh Hewitt, also a former Reagan DOJ lawyer and conservative columnist icon Charles Krauthammer?  Actually, the reaction of conservatives to the acquittal of the running mate of Democrat John (btw, he he served in Vietnam) Kerry is about love of the U.S. Constitution, and decidedly not John Edwards.

This love of the Constitution, of course, extends to the right to trial by jury and the requirement that the government prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, but even more fundamentally, conservatives love an even more fundamental provision of limited government in the Bill of Rights:

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”

Seems pretty clear. What about the words “no law” didn’t Congress understand when they restricted campaign contributions to $2300 per person unless that person is yourself? Yes, we have endured decades of “reform” and the bemoaning of “money in politics”, but we search the founding document in vain for any exception to the words “no law”. Moreover, the Federalist Papers expositions on the kind of speech to be protected from congressional “reforms”, primarily concerns, not the right to scream expletives on a public sidewalk, but rather the very kind of political speech that Edwards was engaged in.

After the passage of restrictive campaign finance laws, former president Ronald Reagan famously said that he would never have run for president if he had had to beg for small contributions 365/24/7 like so many politicians do today. Thankfully, many of the glaring constitutional violations of McCain-Feingold were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in their 2010 Citizens United decision, which ruling complicated the Edwards prosecution and may have had some influence on some jurors, based upon the statement of their foreman, David Recchion:  “I think there needs to be some change in campaign finance law before you go through this process in kind of nailing down what really is and what really isn’t a campaign contribution.”

Had Edwards been convicted, his appeal may well have eventually been an occasion for the nation’s highest court to re-visit McCain-Feingold and its $2300 individual contribution limit. Hopefully his accquital and the possibility of juror nullification will be a deterrent to the further criminalization of politics that we saw against Republicans Oliver North and Scooter Libby and former governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman.

The Founding Fathers were well aware that the freedom to speech most often required money and that differing factions would compete for the money to publish and disseminate their speech. They also understood that powerful and/or moneyed people existed and that their influence would be felt one way or another, and so rejected government imposed limitations in favor of a system of Liberty and competition.

That free speech system served us well before McCain-Feingold and the North Carolina jury that that refused to convict John Edwards for being a bad man served us well last week, and made this conservative proud of our legal system. It ought to be enough to defeat the John Edwards of the world in the political arena of ideas and not try to put those we disagree with behind bars when we get power.

[Postscript: The Justice Department dropped the remaining charges against Edwards on June 12, 2012.]

Mike DeVine

“One man with courage makes a majority” – Andrew Jackson


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