Tuesday, August 02, 2005

28. Is the problem of legal and judicial corruption really different or better in other countries, or is it just the same as in America?

Americans tend not to travel very much outside the USA, so they often assume other countries have the same kind of crooked, rigged, oppressive legal system, even though it's actually much better in every other developed nation.

In terms of corruption, bribery and oppression of the innocent, America's legal system is like that of a sleazy and totally corrupt little country in the third or fourth world. But it is a giant monster of a system, fueled and funded by the richest country on earth. There is nothing like it.

It's really a lot better in all other developed, advanced nations, than it is in America. Americans are more oppressed by the law, by lawyers and by crooked courts, than in any other developed economy. It's almost a very funny equation - in America, more lawyers equals more crime, more prisoners, and less justice.

From comparing other societies, it can be argued that the Anglo-American type of legal system, with its roots in English law, and where lawyers can make lots of money arguing about "precedents", is really the inferior one. And that America has taken the defects of this system, to an absurd extreme

On the European continent, with its differing system with roots in the Roman and French civil codes, the law is really a simpler kind of thing. It is the law as written that matters, and if the law is not clear in some respect, it's not really enforceable.

But in the English kind of system, there is a legal culture that is based on lawyers arguing at great length about precedents and historical cases, every time they are in court. The lawyers like this because they make more money from rich clients, and can just argue endlessly about this and about that. It makes for more money and more of a cult of lawyers.

In Great Britain, Canada and Australia, for example, which all share the same roots in the English legal system, you can see a little bit - a tiny fraction - of the American cult of law and lawsuits. The British, in particular, are starting to develop a little bit of the American-style zest for lawsuits, maybe after watching so many American movies about lawsuits, and realizing they could play the same game. And sometimes, from these countries, you read about cases of lawyer corruption, that sound a little like the typical American corruption. But it is not anywhere near as widespread a problem, as in the United States.

Even though they share the same English-based common law legal system, none of these countries has the same kind of American-style legal disease. In all of them, there is much less crime, a much smaller percentage of people in prison, many fewer lawsuits, and much less oppression by lawyers and judges.

The situation is even better on the continent of Europe, where the legal systems, usually with roots in the Roman and French legal codes, function in a simpler way. Living in Europe, many people hardly think about the law in their lives. There's quite little crime, by American standards, and very few people in prison. Prison sentences are usually pretty short, too, especially for a first offense.

In Europe, lawsuits are relatively rare; things like that are usually handled informally. Lawsuits are actively discouraged, especially silly or nonsensical ones. And there is no cult of lawyers. Lawyers are just other working professional people, and often don't make very much money. The law and courts are just not a big factor in people's lives. Overall, people more often trust the courts, and expect justice when they go to court. They expect the judge to be fair, and not political at all, even though the judge might have some private and very strong political opinions. The judge might even be a communist, or have some other very bold personal views, but people do not worry; they feel good about getting justice in the courts.

In Europe, you tend to hear very little about the American-style complaints about legal and judicial corruption. The judges tend to very explicitly stay out of politics. They don't pass laws, or try to make new ones. That is for the parliament or legislature, and the judges very specifically defer to the legislators, who are the voice of the people.

There are a number of reasons why other advanced nations, in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, have much better legal systems than in America. You could consider things like the fact that in all these other countries, lawyers are an independent profession which is not under the control of anyone else, whereas in America, the lawyers have to be slaves to the judges, or else lose their right to practice law. And other factors could be cited as well.

But the biggest overall reason why other developed nations have much better legal systems, is because they have more democracy. Democracy that is not just a word, but real, effective, multi-party democracy, where people feel they have representatives who really speak for them. And the democracy is at the top of the political system, not the judges.

In a typical European country, you have a real, thriving multi-party political system in the parliament - not like in America where there are the somewhat phony "two parties" who actually both get their money from the same corporations.

In Europe, there might be a few large political parties, but also several smaller ones, thanks to "proportional representation", so even small parties have seats in parliament. What this means, is that if your party gets 10 per cent of the vote, you may get 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Whereas in America, a political party can get one-third of the vote, and have no seats in Congress at all.

In Europe, the political parties cover a much bigger range of views, and it is much easier to start a political party. It takes much less money to start a party or campaign. So there are left-wingers, right wingers, socialists, ex-communists, animal rights advocates, people who like big business, people who hate big business, people who want more rights for working people, and so on. It is lively, and a lot of fun. So even the smaller political groups, get a voice, and get heard. Most people get to see some elected representatives yelling and shouting on their behalf. It is very satisfying, even if you don't have the biggest party, because even the minority point of view influences the law-making.

Also, the government is often a coalition of various parties. And the prime minister, is himself or herself, very close to the elected representatives, and can lose his job tomorrow if he does something wrong. The parliament can vote, and call a new election; you don't need an impeachment.

The parliament system seems to work much better, than the big American political machine. In Europe, if the public is concerned about an issue, it is often debated quickly in parliament. People do not wait for years for some judge to decide something, after a long string of lawsuits, like happens in America.

In Europe, people do not worry so much about the politics or appointment of judges, like they do in the USA. In Europe, judges come from the full range of the political spectrum, but they have limited powers. No one worries about appointing some high court judge, and then being imprisoned by that judge's decisions for the next 20 years because he has political power over the country, like in America. People expect the judges to be professional and not twist the law to suit their purposes. If there are changes needed in the law, the parliament will do that itself, not the judges. The judge can protect the innocent, but he does not have the ability to manage the political life of the country.

In Europe, people look to the parliament, not the judges, for making changes in law and in society. And that is always available. They never feel trapped, like Americans do with their Supreme Court. The parliament can change things right away, if change is needed.

In America there is this whole cult of the law and lawyers and judges. People pretend that the law is "above" politics, "supreme" like the Supreme Court, when actually of course, American judges are supremely political. There is this false image of judges in America, as a kind of priesthood of law, at the same time that judges are given all this absurd power, that really should belong to the people themselves.

In Europe, they understand that it works better the other way around. In Europe, they don't pretend the judges are gods, so they don't put courts higher than the democracy. They understand the danger that judges might start to get political - so that precisely keeps the judges from being political, exactly because everyone understands the danger, and there are multiple political parties to keep an eye on things. If some judge starts getting political or twisted in his decisions, then it is likely that someone in parliament will start complaining about it, and steps will quickly be taken to restore fairness and modesty to the judge's role.

Instead of a cult of law and judges, there's more of a genuine respect for voters and democracy, which ends up being better, even for the courts and the judges, who wind up being more truly of service to the public.

In a nutshell, there's no substitute for democracy, and in America that the smothering of democracy is what has happened: The judges, and the cult of the law and lawyers, has taken the place of democracy. The big corporations prefer the judicial dominance, because it helps them to maintain power and profits, and the "two party system" that quashes all other parties helps maintain the whole scheme. In Europe, the corporations and rich people have to be more socially responsible, because there are usually several political parties in parliament who are not afraid to question them.

In America, democracy is, sadly, just a shadow now, despite all the American boasting about the "land of freedom". The big corporations in America pay for both of the two political parties, which both support the cult of lawyers and judges as a way to serve the big corporations. Because there is no significant political opposition, the cult of judges and lawyers is out of control, and there is no restraint on their power. This is the background of the endless particular cases of legal and judicial corruption, with so many victims.

Click here to go back to the FAQ table of contents.