You know the old joke: “Legal ethics is an oxymoron.”
Now, it may or may not be that lawyers are disproportionately ethically challenged. But the real oxymoron is not about lawyers—it’s about the legal-ization of ethics.
An act can be immoral or unethical without being illegal. And the absence of illegality does not make an act moral. This should not be a hard concept to grasp.
Yet, there is no shortage of businessmen and politicians who aggressively assert legal non-guilt as if it could mask the stench of grossly unethical behavior.
Googling “I have done nothing illegal,” and variations on the theme, provides such gems as these:
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich—“I’m here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.”
New York’s former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, responding to a damning indictment, sounds like the ex-boxer he is, saying
“After being hounded for three years, I am being indicted on a prosecutor’s sleight of hand.” Bruno insults an entire profession by calling millions of dollars in sales-commissions-or-is-it-kickbacks “consulting fees.”
Remember Senator Alan Cranston of the Keating Five? Talking to congress, he said, “You know that I broke no law.”
Enron’s Jeff Skilling testifies that he and Lay never broke the law.
Confirming their virtue, his buddy Ken Lay said: “We don’t break the law.”
Former New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, explaining the scandal that led to his resignation: “…had not denied taking gifts from Mr. Chang, but said that he took no ‘illegal gifts’…”
Back in 2006, San Jose’s mayor Ron Gonzales kept it simple. Indicted for fraud, bribery and conspiracy, he said “I broke no law.”
Lousiana’s former Governor Edwin Edwards, being charged with $1M in racketeering and extortion said, ”I know I didn’t break any Federal laws.”
Really blurring the ethics/law boundaries, Pennsylvania State Senator Fumo’s 2007 response to a 139-count Federal indictment was, “I know in my heart that I have not done anything illegal.”
Over on Long Island, the late Republican Joseph Margiotta was convicted of federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges in a municipal insurance kickback scheme, and served 14 months. Even then, he explained, “I didn’t break any law.”
When Don Imus was brought back to the air from the racist dead, part of the rationale for it, as provided by the CEO of Citadel Broadcasting was, you guessed it, “he didn’t break the law.” So I guess all that other stuff—no biggie.
I can’t wait to hear from Madoff. His scam deftly sought out legal vacuums. So if and when he says, “I’ve broken no laws,” it’s important we remember he’s still a sociopathic ripoff artist.
When someone says, “I didn’t do anything illegal,” you can bet your bottom dollar they did two things wrong. One was the scam itself.
The other is worse. They have demeaned both the law and ethics.
The law cannot and should not substitute for ethics. For one thing, it puts an unsupportable load on the law—and lets unethical and immoral people off the hook.
Worst of all, it equates moral arguments to whining complaints made to third parties. That’s a recipe for abdicating personal responsibility. You can’t trust people who have no inner moral compass. A thief with a legal loophole is still a thief. A con artist with a good lawyer is no less a con artist.
That is the true meaning of “legal ethics is an oxymoron.”
When someone to whom we entrust our life savings or our political leadership acts badly, and then defends himself by saying,“I broke no law,” they should be shunned and shamed—outed and shouted—exposed to derision and disgust in all forms of public dialogue. Not to mention voted out or fired.
Bruno, Blago and Bernie ought to be ashamed of themselves. If they can’t even manage that, their status in court has no claim on our judgment.