Archive for Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Law fascinates Americans

August 1, 2001


This has been a slow summer for legal news. Congress has not been as prolific as many had hoped and the production of new legislative initiatives other than the so-called "tax reforms" has been relatively modest. We have yet to wake up to any announcements of resignations by U.S. Supreme Court justices, although court watchers continue to suggest that Chief Justice Rehnquist and Associate Justice O'Connor are planning to step down and make room for new faces on the Court.

We have had, of course, the usual run of murders, thefts and other crimes, but nothing, other than the disappearance of Chandra Levy, has kept the media's attention for more than a day or two. The FBI has made a number of headlines of late, particularly in regard to mistakes it has made in turning over evidence and tracking the tens of thousands of weapons it owns and its agents use.

And this week there are hearings in Congress on the misuse of credit cards by Pentagon employees and the cost of this behavior to banks who have issued these credit cards. But we have not had a big, splashy case like the O.J. Simpson case nor have we had a major congressional investigation of alleged illegal activities or wrongdoing, nor have we even had the kind of vitriolic debates over new legislation which we have come to expect to read about in our morning newspapers.

This quiet period has made me reflect upon how central the law has become to modern life and, most especially, to the media. I have come to realize that, to a very large extent, the law, broadly defined, has become not only a staple of American media content, but has become the dominant topic for news writing. And, in some rather sinister variations, it has even become a major source for entertainment, as in the hit HBO series, "The Sopranos," which, in spite of its near cult following, is about a group of ruthless criminals with no respect for law or other people.

The fact of the matter is that Americans are obsessed with the law and things legal. We love to read about legal matters, about trials, and about lawyers and judges. One whole cable channel, Court TV, is devoted to programs about the law. Television news and newspapers routinely devote a large percentage of their coverage to legal issues.

My totally unscientific analysis of the front pages of several newspapers over the past several months suggests to me that the three leading subjects for news coverage in the United States today are the economy, Congress, and the law. If one recognizes that a large part of the coverage about the economy and about Congress actually is about legislative actions and, in particular, legislative responses to economic conditions, then the category of law expands even more and overwhelms the other two.

If one accepts my suggestion that the news media and the American people are, in fact, obsessed with the law, where does this lead? First, I think that it is important to note that not all countries nor all news media outside the United States have the same obsessions as we do.

For instance, if one were to look at the British press one would conclude that their national obsessions were sex, the Royal family, and cows, not necessarily in that order. The French seem to be primarily concerned with food, wine, and with themselves. The Germans are obsessed with sex and with their rightful place in the world order. But while Americans may be interested in these other topics, our news and our greatest concerns seem mainly to be legal.

I think, actually, that this is probably a very good thing. The United States was founded upon the premise that we would be a nation under the law and that we would not be governed by men and their whims, as was the case with the European monarchies, but by laws duly established according to democratic principles. We are a nation founded upon a tradition of individual rights, even if it has taken more than two centuries to ensure that these rights were extended to all Americans.

Our foundational documents as a nation guarantee each of us "due process of law," one of the greatest achievements of modern society. Even our social battles are conducted in the courtroom not in the streets. The debate over the last presidential election has not been a debate about ideologies or about power, but, instead, it has been a debate about the law and its rightful interpretation and application.

When we have major social disputes we do not find weapons and revolt as happens in so many other countries. Instead we go to court and we fight our battles using the laws of the land, not carbines and howitzers. There is a consensus in this country that the law must be preserved and that the law is the primary basis upon which our society is based.

I would suggest that the American obsession with law and legislation is reflective of the best aspect of our nation, that we are, indeed, a nation ruled by laws and one in which the vast majority of the population believes in the fundamental principle that a nation is best which is ruled by laws. So, perhaps, at times like this when there is not a great deal of legal or legislative news and we are forced to read more "human interest" stories on the front pages and to watch accounts of summertime follies at the lake on the television, we should take time to step back and reflect upon our American obsession with the law and realize that it is, indeed, more than an obsession, it is a love affair and one which we share with all those Americans who have come before us and built a nation under the laws. And we may be thankful that this is so.

Anyway, we all know that soon enough there will be another spectacular trial or Congressional battle to keep us all happy.

Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University School of Law.

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