Above the law

Dateline 19 March 2008

It is rather gratifying when someone who seems to believe that the law is whatever he wants it to be on any given day discovers that this is not so.

Just a week ago Eliot Spitzer was expected to lead New York’s Democrats into legislative elections next fall and capture the State Senate – the last bastion of Republican power. By the time you read this, he will be out of office and his political enemies will be fighting over his corpse.

As Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer used to prosecute people for ‘crimes’ which no-one had ever heard of before. He would allege fraud in cases where the business practice concerned was understood and accepted by all parties. And then he would offer plea bargains so cheap that they were a bargain compared to the price of a defence lawyer. Most people took the plea.

The result was that he established precedents for ‘crimes’ which have never been agreed by any legislature. He stretched laws from the 1920s designed to deal with pyramid selling and applied them to investment schemes which were unknown when the law was adopted. These crimes were wholly in the mind of the executive branch, and most specifically in the mind of Eliot Spitzer. This aggressive attitude to civil liberties and the law led the New York Times to call him ‘tough’ and got him elected Governor of New York by a record margin.

But now, it seems, he has been caught up in a prostitution scandal. He seems to have been committing federal crimes. Real ones. Crimes enacted by Congress and which would have been prosecuted by any DA or Attorney General, not just the ‘tough’ ones who make up their own rules.

While I confess that I have never understood why a voluntary transaction to exchange favors for money should be a crime, under federal law and under New York law, it is.

This is the end for a man who once believed he was a future President. If he had seen out his tumultuous term as governor of New York, he could easily have been a credible candidate in 2012 or 2016. But less than two years in, he has crashed on his own hubris. First he used state resources to hound a political opponent – ironically on bogus charges of misusing state resources. Now he has been exposed as the notorious “client 9” of a prostitution ring. It remains to be seen whether he used state resources to further his dangerous liaisons in Washington. We still don’t know whether he will appear in court, either as a defendant or as a witness. We still don’t know the details of the peculiar tastes of which the prostitute was warned.

Democrats in the state are now leaderless. The new Governor, David Paterson, has little profile. He will probably be challenged for the Democratic nomination in 2010 by Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo. Neither man is any friend to Spitzer. Joe Bruno, Republican Leader of the State Senate, and the man Spitzer tried to implicate in scandal last year, succeeds Paterson as Lt. Governor. Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg are among the heavyweight challengers that Paterson or Cuomo could face.

As long as people respected Spitzer, it didn’t matter that no-one liked him. With his respect in tatters the dislike has killed his career.

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