Ashcroft and Justice: Mutual Exclusives

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When he went through his bruising confirmation hearings after President George W. Bush nominated him for U.S. Attorney General, a number of Democratic senators expressed concern that Ashcroft’s Christianity would somehow interfere with his ability to carry out the laws of this country. The Democrats, of course, were referring to laws that give special privileges to abortion clinics, as though legal abortion were the highest priority of the law.

Now that Ashcroft has firmly established a record as attorney general, one wishes that his Christianity would interfere with how he carries out his duties. Indeed, Ashcroft has been anything but Christian in what he is doing, not only in the "war" on those accused of "terrorism," but also in how he is approaching the so-called corporate financial scandals.

Yes, we know that Ashcroft has a weekly Bible study at the DOJ offices, something that apparently gave a near heart attack to Sen. Patrick Leahy and the American Civil Liberties Union. I could only hope that what he and his minions study during those 8:30 a.m. sessions actually would affect how the department does business, but from what I can see, about the only thing we can surmise is that Ashcroft thinks it is sinful to smoke, drink, dance, and take drugs (including medically-prescribed marijuana). Doing real justice as prescribed by the Bible, however, is another matter.

I am not speaking here of the Old Testament directives to stone adulterers, homosexuals, and belligerent children, but rather the larger or what Jesus referred to as the "weightier" matters of the law such as the practice of carrying out justice and mercy. In modern law enforcement, and especially at the federal level, justice took a back seat long ago to ambition, and may God help anyone who seeks mercy in our present system of injustice.

John Ashcroft is not the first attorney general to engage in malicious prosecutions, deprive individuals of constitutional rights, and generally railroad innocent people into prison. Furthermore, he is not the first in his position to abuse and torture people who are not guilty of crimes. This practice has been going on for some time, although in our postmodern, secular era, it seems that each attorney general is determined to be worse than the successor. The use of the "rubber hoses" of RICO and anti-drug laws that began with the Ronald Reagan Administration has escalated into the present era of the guilty plea, as hapless defendants are snowed under with multiple indictments and threats of long prison terms unless they plead out.

Moreover, modern prosecutors have legal tools that would have caused many of their predecessors to recoil in horror. Thanks to RICO laws, prosecutors can pick up a violation of any regulation, no matter how mundane, and bundle those violations together into huge counts of "conspiracy" charges that carry 25-year sentences upon conviction. Upon a RICO indictment, the government can freeze the assets of individuals and their families, thus making it difficult for them to adequately defend themselves.

Given that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, I doubt that most Americans care whether or not "criminals" are railroaded into prison. Since the majority of Americans likely do not know anyone in prison, they probably believe that whoever is behind bars deserves to be there. The truth is murkier.

Those of us who do know people in prison are likely to see things differently, especially if we know the stories behind their incarceration. Contrary to what the political classes tell us, most prisoners, whether in state or federal facilities, are not there for violent offenses or robbery, or even burglary. Instead, they are serving time for drug possession, possessing drug "paraphernalia," or violation of one of the hundreds of thousands of federal and state regulations that increasingly govern our lives. And for large numbers of the almost two million people currently in U.S. prisons, their incarceration places enormous burdens upon their families, as people are deprived of homes and income.

I will tell the story of one of John Ashcroft’s victims. My friend’s company was raided in 1996 by one of the ubiquitous "SWAT teams" of a federal agency in which men wearing bullet proof outfits, Nazi-style coal scuttle helmets, and carrying automatic weapons. This "team" burst into his building, waving weapons, screaming threats, and generally creating havoc. After all of the company’s records were seized, the worst thing the agency conducting the raid could find was the violation of an obscure regulation.

Despite overwhelming evidence that the actions taken by the company officials were in good faith and certainly not done with any criminal intent, Janet Reno’s DOJ decided to prosecute my friend and his business partner under the RICO statutes. To further bolster their case, Reno’s underlings threatened the firm’s accountant and attorney with charges unless they cooperated. Despite the fact that the company’s owners originally had acted under the advice of that attorney and accountant, they suddenly found themselves being charged with the swindle of the century.

To make matters worse, the government threw in a charge of "money laundering" because the company used a bank located in the Bahamas — something that is perfectly legal under U.S. law, by the way. However, in this postmodern era of justice, a legal action suddenly became a crime because the U.S. attorney wanted to make his case look stronger.

Impoverished by having all of their assets frozen, my friend, his wife, and two children suddenly found themselves unable to afford decent legal representation and were forced to use a "public defender," which often is worse than having no legal counsel at all. Of course, the government offered a plea bargain of four years in prison. My friend, believing that he was an American who was legally entitled to a fair trial, balked, thinking that the lack of criminal intent actually mattered in federal court.

To make a long story short, a federal judge in 2001 convicted him and his partner of "racketeering" and sentenced each of them to 10 years in prison — over the objections of the U.S. attorney (now in the employ of John Ashcroft), who was demanding 25 years. After the conviction, the government completed its liquidation of the family’s property and now Ashcroft’s DOJ is even trying to seize the $10,000 left from the sale of the home that was in the wife’s ownership. It is not enough that the family lives in desperate hand-to-mouth poverty and uncertainty; Ashcroft must have everything, even if it means trying to destroy a family of fellow Christians.

My friends’ story has been multiplied a thousand fold as the government continues to spread its nets wider and wider. Each year, Congress creates criminal penalties for activities that for centuries have been legal. At the same time, the historic legal protections such as mens rea (crimes require intent to commit them), reasonable bail, and the rights to counsel are being eroded away as "law and order" politicians convince the voters that only a tyrannical regime can make people safe.

The Bible — which Ashcroft claims to believe — says that one thing God hates most is the "shedding of innocent blood." Furthermore, the Bible in its "eye for an eye" passage says that punishment for crimes must fit the severity of those acts.

Today, we have legal regimes of overkill. People rot in the awful U.S. prison system, often charged with frivolous offenses. Ashcroft himself sought the death penalty against John Walker Lindh even though it was painfully obvious that Lindh had not committed any offense for which execution was an appropriate punishment. To put it another way, Ashcroft sought to "shed innocent blood."

The recent spate of "financial scandals" is also fertile ground for Ashcroft, whose office has already made some high-profile arrests. Because of their charged political nature, it is obvious that Ashcroft and his underlings will engage in whatever conduct they deem necessary to gain convictions, no matter what the real facts of a particular case may be.

In 1940, U.S. Attorney Robert Jackson — who never made any public religious claims, to my knowledge — urged that prosecutors restrain themselves lest they act unjustly. In a speech, he said that a prosecutor must avoid

…pick(ing) people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him.

Would be that Ashcroft would show the same integrity and restraint. Unfortunately, I am afraid that we are going to have further "Vietnamization" of those rights so painstakingly won over the course of centuries: John Ashcroft believes that in order to save our rights, the government must destroy them.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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