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Nothing to Applaud in Federal Prosecution of John Edwards

There is no more loathsome figure in recent American politics than John Edwards. The former Democratic vice presidential candidate is a phony, a philanderer, and a cheat. His work as an attorney using his rhetorical skills to bamboozle juries made him a poster child for tort reform. Leaving aside his political flim-flammery, Edwards’s betrayal of his dying wife with a videographer and subsequent coverup and denials of the paternity of his illegitimate child earned him an ironic place in history as one of the most personally dishonorable major party presidential contenders ever to come down the pike.

That said, the effort to haul Edwards into federal court for campaign-finance violations related to the diversion of money to his mistress strikes me as the worst sort of prosecutorial excess. The Justice Department may well be able to prove that the way Edwards’s campaign money was spent was a violation of the complicated and arcane campaign finance laws. But the decision to indict Edwards seems to be more about finding a way for the government to express its outrage about the North Carolinian’s behavior more than anything else.

That’s not just because campaign finance laws are generally ill-considered attempts to restrict free speech. Violations of these measures are often unintended and largely the result of the fact that is almost impossible to navigate through the maze that they create without constant legal advice that is itself often incorrect. The prosecutions that result from violations of their provisions are also often highly political in nature.

But the main point about the attempt to imprison Edwards for his misdeeds is that it seems to be yet another lamentable example of the justice system seeking to capitalize on public anger at unpopular celebrity. More often than not such prosecutions are merely fishing expeditions in which prosecutors with virtually unlimited power search for some legal violation on which to hang a defendant and then attempt to bully them into accepting a plea bargain. We’ve seen such dramas played out time and again in which people Martha Stewart and Barry Bonds have had the full force of the federal government against them for actions that, while arguably reprehensible, were crimes in only the technical sense of the term.

The spectacle of Edwards’ prosecution may gladden the hearts of some conservatives who have seen similarly flimsy legal attacks on some of their former leaders like Tom DeLay succeed. But that doesn’t make what is happening to Edwards right.

Seeing John Edwards brought into court may satisfy a public that rightly thinks him deserving of some rough justice for the way he treated his wife. But however despicable he may be, putting him through the wringer for campaign finance violations is no triumph for American jurisprudence.