The Crowd and the Law

There is more than one way to curb an author­i­tar­ian

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - 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 Don­ald Trump signed an “ex­ec­u­tive or­der” im­pos­ing a 90-day ban on cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity 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 Ro­bart 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 reval­i­dated, and even Syr­ian im­mi­grants are be­ing ad­mit­ted to the United States again. The rule of law has pre­vailed.

Even if the ap­peal court ul­ti­mately re­jects Ro­bart’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 Ro­bart (who was nom­i­nated, by the way, by Ge­orge W. Bush’s 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.


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