Tim Wu takes readers' questions on tolerated lawbreaking in America.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Oct. 18 2007 5:08 PM

Tell It to the Judge

Tim Wu takes readers' questions on the laws Americans can seemingly ignore.

Slate contributor Tim Wu was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Oct. 18, to discuss the legal nuances of tolerated lawbreaking in America. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

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Tim Wu: Hmm I'm not an expert on dog law.

I had a dog growing up but it was pretty obedient, no run-ins with officer daschund.

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Washington: Dear Mr. Wu. Whenever I read about something like a kid getting expelled for bringing aspirin to class I have sympathy for the position of selective enforcement of laws. That said, don't we also run the risk of losing the rule of law and reverting back to the rule of authority? If we can't rely on laws protecting our rights, what will?

Tim Wu: I'm not an anarchist. I'm not the anti-christ. I don't wanna destroy!!!

I think there are core laws—mostly related to physical security, that any country must have to be peaceful. Basically the laws Hobbes had in mind.

Then there's a whole host of experimental or optional laws—laws that we are trying but may or may end up useful. 100s of years later, we'll know.

Like laws against insider trading, prohibition, bankruptcy law, patent, antitrust, telecom, etc. etc.

Not that these latter laws are necessarily bad. Some are clearly good and make the country better. But just because they are laws we shouldn't forget that they are also, in the end, experiments. They're like furniture in the living room of the nation-state, they are supposed to make our lives better.

But if they don't work, they should be abandoned, or changed. That's what I want people to take from this series.

This series, by the way, is going to become a book, so watch for that..

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Washington: Several years ago the boyfriend of a friend of mine stabbed someone. She fled the scene and was arrested and charged with literally seven crimes. After she agreed to be a witness and paid for a high-powered lawyer, all but one charge was dropped and she was convicted with a suspended sentence because of time served in lockup. I found her story profoundly disturbing because the charges weren't real and wouldn't have stood up in court, but they were levied against her as a negotiating tool for her to put her boyfriend away. I mean, the guy was guilty so she needed to testify, but it wasn't a murder mystery novel where the character let introspection guide her to justice—she was jailed, couldn't work, and her name was splashed across the newspapers.

Tim Wu: Thanks for this story.

It does surprise me in a country with America's libertarian leanings, that we put up with this kind of stuff.

While this is a big topic, I think there should be more oversight of prosecutors, and of the legal profession in general. Nothing good happens when power is unsupervised.

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Alexandria, Va.: The problem with Jefferson's 19-year idea is that any legislature doesn't want to debate about what's illegal—it riles up the voters. So they turn it over to the judiciary, which ignores the outdated laws. Then the legislators complain about "activist judges."

Tim Wu: That's the cycle! Good point.

Thanks and sorry for the typos and the questions I couldn't get to. I think I wrote "Yoder" when I meant Amish at some point.

Look for an expanded version of this series, as I said before, in book form in a year or two..

Tim Wu

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Minneapolis: Great series, Professor Wu. The best analyses seem self-evident right after reading them. However, you've focused mainly on how the legislative and executive branches "honor in the breach" so to speak. Please expand upon the role(s) you see the judiciary playing in this process.

Tim Wu: See above.

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