Giving "Others" the Benefit of Law

Give "others" the benefit of law? In the classic movie, A Man for All Seasons, there is a powerful scene wherein Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield, is harshly criticized by his family and future son-in-law for not arresting a suspected spy who was likely plotting against him. Rather than arresting the suspect, Sir Thomas More allowed him to leave the residence without restraint. When More asked his family why the man should be arrested, they argued that he was a "bad" man. More explained there is no law against that. The exchange played out as follows:

Lady Alice More: Arrest him!

Sir Thomas More: For what?

Lady Alice More: He's dangerous!

William Roper: He's a spy!

Margaret More: Father, that man's bad!

Sir Thomas More: There's no law against that.

Roper: There is, God's law.

Sir Thomas More: Then God can arrest him.

Lady Alice More: While you talk he's gone!

Sir Thomas More: And go he should if he were the devil himself until he broke the law.

Roper: So, now you'd give the devil benefit of law?

Sir Thomas More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?

Roper: Yes. I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

Sir Thomas More: Oh, and when the last law was down and the devil turned around on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws not God's, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes. I'd give the devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.

View the scene here: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS - THE DEVIL AND THE LAW

The temptation to "cut down" or ignore rightly established laws in order to secure a desired result against "others" is ever present. As an attorney in the criminal justice system, I am consistently confronted with the reality that the procedural due process rights of the accused are often viewed as a mere impediment to the "efficient administration of justice." Likewise, many serious constitutional violations are often characterized as "mere technicalities."

I understand the temptation. However, I also recognize that our system is based upon law and the interpretation of the established law is generally based upon precedent from previous cases. There is an old axiom that "hard cases make bad law". The precedent from a difficult or "hard" case, is then applied to future cases. If the laws or rights are improperly "cut down" in order to efficiently prosecute a notorious suspect in one case, the law or procedural due process right is thereby minimized and no longer stands to protect the rights of the accused in future cases due to the precedent set.

For instance, with regard to the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, there are so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that my law professor used to say that the Fourth Amendment has "more holes in it than swiss cheese". Exceptions are often carved out in "hard cases" where the result of the case would likely be undesirable if no exception was made. Once made, however, that exception is then the rule going forward. As a result, the rights of all to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures are thereby diminished.

When we fail to give "others" the benefit of law, we deprive them not only of their rights, but we also fail to secure our own individual rights going forward. It is easy to deny "the devil" the benefit of law. It may seem harmless for instance to promote the limitation of the free speech rights of those you believe are spreading "hate speech" on a college campus. However, it is not always so easy to foresee or appreciate the future impact of prohibiting "hate speech". In all likelihood, the definition of what constitutes "hate speech" will be determined by whoever happens to be in control at various times. The precedent can be set and with good intention, but when the right is gone, when the law is cut down, it can no longer be effectively invoked by those seeking its protection in the future. The definition of "hate speech" will shift with the times and with various administrations. The pendulum will swing, but the rights and the protections of the law will be gone.

Giving the Devil the benefit of law is a discomforting and perhaps infuriating thought. Similarly, protecting the freedom of speech rights of those who spread hate-based ideas is difficult to stomach. Likewise, ensuring that those accused of heinous crimes are afforded both substantive and procedural due process rights is often met with a great deal of frustration and anger by many. However, only by giving "others" the benefit of law, do we ensure that we too will enjoy those benefits.

If you are involved in a great deal of political activism or engage in debates regarding controversial topics, or if you practice a faith, you are very likely labeled as an "other" to those who oppose your position. In many cases, you may even be labeled "the Devil". The exceptions to the law you wish to carve out when it comes to "others" can then later be employed against you, your family, or your organization in the future. As so often occurs in nature, the hunter becomes the hunted.

Of course, laws can be rightly changed and modified. In fact, many laws are in need of modification. However, there are established democratic processes in place to effectuate those changes. Weakening those procedures in order to secure a desired result today, sets the precedent for those in the future to exploit those weakened procedures and lowered hurdles in order to accomplish their desired results. Giving "others" the benefit of law, the benefit of procedure, and the benefit of rights is the best way to ensure that those same benefits and rights are afforded to you, your family, your friends and your organizations.

Oh, and when the last law was down and the devil turned around on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws not God's, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes. I'd give the devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.