I know laws are important. A civilized society needs them. It needs them to regulate traffic and control crime. It needs them to mediate and arbitrate disputes.
Everything that is legal, however, is not moral. Everything legal is not right. Everything legal is not just. Too often in our courts plaintiffs and defendants do not receive justice but legalities.
We like to say that the United States is a nation of laws True enough, but as Frank Zappa, the composer, guitarist and film director, has pointed out. "The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced."
Does anyone doubt that the rich get better treatment in our courts than the poor? After all, they can afford the lawyers. Are the more affluent johns treated better than the sex workers they hired before they were both arrested? What do you think?
We should remind ourselves that everything Adolph HItler did in Nazi Germany was legal under German law. Today no one in their right mind would say that Hitler's actions were moral or ethical. On the contrary, they were horribly evil - but in Germany at the time they were legal.
In our own day, it is certainly legal for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to stonewall requests for e-mails pertaining to pedophile priests, but is it right? Is it moral? I think not.
Charles Dickens once wrote that the courts are where lawyers "spin masterly fictions" so judges can "waste their days reading mountains of costly nonsense."
Perhaps Dickens is too harsh on lawyers and judges, but for anyone who has rolled their eyes in disbelief over the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United, I wonder. That's the court decision that gives corporations the legal right to spend massive amounts of money in political campaigns.
Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman who served in the English House of Commons, was on to something when he said that the study of law sharpens the mind by narrowing it.
No doubt, Citizens United is the law of the land. It is legal, but as it pollutes the political process is it sensible? Is it just?
Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," quotes Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is not a law at all." Both Augustine in the fifth Century and King in the twentieth were stating an essential truth.
And how about those who create the laws? How about the lobbyists who make phone calls and twist arms to help craft the legislation and the legislators who pass it into law? The prophet Isaiah, has some harsh words for them. "Woe to those who make cruel and unfair laws that let you cheat the poor and the needy and rob widows and orphans." (Isaiah 10:1-2).
Unfair laws are legal, but they are not just : and they are not moral.