The crowd and the law

Some­times you need them both

Cape Breton Post - - OP-ED - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

In Ro­ma­nia, after five straight nights of mass de­mon­stra­tion in Bucharest’s main square, the gov­ern­ment agreed to with­draw an emer­gency de­cree that de­crim­i­nal­ized var­i­ous abuses of po­lit­i­cal power (on the grounds that the jails were too crowded). If you de­frauded the state of less than $47,500, un­der the new rules, you might have to pay it back, but you wouldn’t go to jail.

More to the point, those al­ready serv­ing sen­tences or fac­ing charges for steal­ing, say, $47,499 would be re­leased from jail or see the charges dis­missed – in­clud­ing the leader of the gov­ern­ing So­cial Demo­cratic Party, Liviu Drag­nea, who was con­victed of steal­ing only $27,000. (That’s not nec­es­sar­ily how much he stole; just how much they could PROVE he stole.)

Ro­ma­nia used to be one of the most cor­rupt coun­tries in Europe, but since it joined the Euro­pean Union in 2007 it has been un­der great pres­sure from Brus­sels to clean up its act. There was also huge do­mes­tic pres­sure from or­di­nary Ro­ma­ni­ans who are sick of their ve­nal politi­cians, and the anti-cor­rup­tion drive was mak­ing real progress.

Then last Tues­day Prime Min­is­ter Sorin Grindeanu’s gov­ern­ment is­sued its de­cree free­ing hun­dreds of jailed politi­cians, of­fi­cials and even judges. It was due to go into ef­fect next Fri­day, but right away the crowd came pour­ing out into the streets in Bucharest and all the other big cities.

After five nights of mass demon­stra­tions, the gov­ern­ment can­celled its de­cree on Satur­day. The Crowd won, and both jus­tice and democ­racy were well served.

The other very dodgy de­cree of re­cent days was in Wash­ing­ton, where Pres­i­dent Trump signed an “ex­ec­u­tive or­der” im­pos­ing a 90-day ban on cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity coun­tries seek­ing to en­ter the United States (even if they were le­gal U.S. res­i­dents or had been is­sued visas after vet­ting by U.S. em­bassies) and an in­def­i­nite ban on Syr­ian refugees.

Like the Ro­ma­nian de­cree, its le­gal­ity was doubt­ful. As in Ro­ma­nia, the protest­ing crowds came out in large num­bers in the United States (though pro­por­tion­ally in much smaller num­bers, and cer­tainly not for five suc­ces­sive nights). But what re­ally brought Trump’s plan grind­ing to a halt, at least for the mo­ment, was a judge.

U.S. Dis­trict Se­nior Judge James Ro­barts of Seat­tle is­sued an or­der sus­pend­ing the Trump ban – and even Pres­i­dent Trump obeyed it (although he did re­fer to Ro­barts, with typ­i­cal gra­cious­ness, as a “so-called judge”). The whole ma­chin­ery of gov­ern­ment went into re­verse, en­try visas are be­ing re-val­i­dated, and even Syr­ian im­mi­grants are be­ing ad­mit­ted to the United States again. The rule of law has pre­vailed.

When the case goes to the ap­peals court, and pos­si­bly then to the Supreme Court, the ar­gu­ment of those op­pos­ing the ban will doubt­less be that it flouts the First Amend­ment re­quire­ment that one re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tion can­not be of­fi­cially pre­ferred over an­other.

This may per­suade the Ninth Cir­cuit Ap­peals Court in San Fran­cisco, which is rel­a­tively lib­eral, and even to the Supreme Court, which will con­tinue to be split evenly between lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives un­til Trump’s nom­i­nee for the ninth seat on the Court is ap­proved by Congress. Or it may not.

Even if the ap­peal courts ul­ti­mately re­jects Ro­barts’s ar­gu­ment and reim­poses the ban, the Law will have suc­cess­fully curbed the abuse of ex­ec­u­tive power. It al­ways has to be curbed, be­cause even with the best of in­ten­tions those who hold power will in­evitably try to ex­pand it – and some­times they do not have the best of in­ten­tions.

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion has won the first round of the bat­tle against Trump’s au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies. Full marks to James Ro­barts (who was nom­i­nated, by the way, by George W. Bush’s Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tion).

But four years is a long time, and there will be oc­ca­sions when lawyers won’t be enough. The Crowd will be needed as well: demon­stra­tions as large, as dis­ci­plined and as pa­tient as those in Ro­ma­nia. And as sus­pi­cious of be­ing be­trayed once they have gone home.

The night after the Ro­ma­nian gov­ern­ment can­celled its “emer­gency de­cree”, there was the big­gest de­mon­stra­tion of all: half a mil­lion peo­ple in Vic­tory Square in Bucharest. Why? Be­cause the gov­ern­ment had mut­tered some­thing about ad­dress­ing the same “is­sue” of al­legedly crowded jails through nor­mal leg­is­la­tion in par­lia­ment, which would still re­ally be about get­ting crooked politi­cians out of jail.

So they won’t go home un­til Prime Min­is­ter Grindeanu prom­ises not to bring the sub­ject up again.

“What re­ally brought Trump’s plan grind­ing to a halt, at least for the mo­ment, was a judge.”

AP PHOTO/VADIM GHIRDA

A man waves the Ro­ma­nian flag while stand­ing with oth­ers next to the word “We re­sist” writ­ten in the snow dur­ing a protest out­side the gov­ern­ment head­quar­ters , in Bucharest, Ro­ma­nia, on Wed­nes­day.

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