Above the Law?

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 17 2008 7:54 AM

Above the Law?

What do Eliot Spitzer , Dickie Scruggs , and Tupac Shakur all have in common?

Ego and hubris, of course. But more specifically, a belief that they operated by different rules than the rest of us mere mortals. Not just that they could avoid being caught, or get out of trouble if caught, but that the law simply didn't apply to them because of their status. Each found this to be untrue in his own way.

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In reading Chuck Philips' masterful profile  of Shakur in today's Los Angeles Times , I was struck again by the shear volume of criminality in Shakur's life.  Some of this was typical Hollywood illicit activity sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. and some was marketing or puffery which aimed to connect his music about the "thug life" with real acts of violence.  But there's also a staggering amount of criminality that runs throughout many of the scenes in Philips' years of reporting on Shakur and the West Coast/East Coast rap rivalry: omnipresent weaponry; use of beatings to enforce contracts; bribery and extortion; and the list goes on. These are all crimes , but they were standard operating procedures for many of the principals involved because they believed they were above the law.

Similarly, Dickie Scruggs believed he lived on a higher plane than the lawyers around him. A well-timed Wall Street Journal profile paints Scruggs as even more mercurial and Macchiavellian than he appeared when played by Colm Fiore in The Insider a movie dramatizing Scruggs' fight against tobacco companies. Scruggs won big by raising the stakes and waging scorched-earth litigation in the way that Sherman waged war by cutting a swath through Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. But he also won by bending and twisting the rules, and shattering the friendships and alliances he built with other lawyers (including his own associates) in order to consolidate his winnings. This certainly wasn't the modus opperandi I learned in law school, nor in private practice, but it worked for Scruggs (for a while) because he was a billion dollar man who could simply buy his way out of tough situations. Until Friday, when he pled guilty to conspiring to bribe a Mississippi state-court judge in a battle with former colleagues over legal fees.

And then there's Eliot Spitzer who fell into the net of federal law enforcement through means he was intimately familiar with as a former prosecutor who relied on things like "suspicious activity reports" to prosecute members of New York's financial community. Spitzer had to know both that his alleged sexual misconduct was unlawful, and that his financial transactions would raise eyebrows, but he paid no attention to those things. Spitzer spent years prosecuting other titans of Manhattan who felt they were above the law but apparently the message never got through because he suffered from the same mistaken belief.

Pride goeth before the fall ...

Phillip Carter is an Iraq veteran who now directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.

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