Jury selection starts today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards on six felony charges of federal campaign finance law violations involving an alleged conspiracy and the making of false statements. Despite the mountain of evidence that they claim backs up these allegations, the prosecutors’ main weapon in the trial will be the fact that Edwards is generally held to be among the most repulsive politicians to stride across our national stage in a generation. He is a vain, puffed up politician who was always something of a fraud even in his heyday. He is also a liar who cheated on his terminally ill wife and did everything possible to deceive the public about his affair and the child he fathered with his mistress. But that’s also the problem with this case. Absent Edward’s reputation as bottom-feeder, there is no way that any prosecutor would seek to bring anyone else to court on such flimsy charges.
The irony here is that although John Edwards is the quintessential sleazy politician who has earned the public’s scorn, his trial will actually be a crucial test of a key principle: Whether the Justice Department can interpret the byzantine and vague campaign finance laws so as to treat virtually anything a candidate gets as an official contribution that can be regulated. The case illustrates a fundamental principle of the legal system that demands that even the most loathsome of citizens deserves the same protections and rights as the most righteous. Though Americans may well think Edwards deserves a possible sentence of up to 30 years and $1.5 million in fines for his reprehensible conduct toward his late wife, he must be acquitted if we are to prevent the government from assuming more power that it could use against worthier citizens.