Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Our Weaponized Legal System Misfires

How partisan lawfare threatens democracy

by Michael Lind, Tablet

The greatest threat to democracy today is not populism, as elite liberals claim. Nor is it the old-fashioned dictatorial coup d’etat. The greatest danger that multiparty democracy faces is “lawfare”—the weaponization of national judicial systems by political parties to delegitimize, harass, bankrupt, disqualify, and sometimes imprison politicians of other parties.

In Scotland, the husband of former Prime Minister Nikola Sturgeon has been arrested in a case involving Scottish National Party finances; soon she may be arrested herself. In India, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been arrested and sentenced to two years in jail and expelled from parliament for joking about the name of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In Pakistan, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been arrested, with Pakistan’s Supreme Court holding that his arrest by paramilitary forces was unconstitutional. In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was recently elected president, after having been arrested and imprisoned on corruption charges, only to have the verdict thrown out by a judge. In 2018, half of all former living South Korean presidents were in prison.

Latin America, sharing separations-of-powers constitutions like the U.S., leads the world in impeachments of presidents by opposition parties carrying out “legislative coups.” Of 12 impeachments in Latin America since 1900, 10 have taken place in the last three decades and six in only three nations—Brazil, Ecuador, and Paraguay.

In the 235 years in which the U.S. has been governed under the federal Constitution, three of the four presidential impeachments have taken place in the last 25 years, and two in the last three years. In North America, as in Latin America, impeachment has gone from being the last resort in emergencies to being a frequently used weapon by one political party against another.

Has any U.S. president ever deserved impeachment? Yes, one: Richard Nixon.

Nixon’s Special Investigations Unit, known as the Plumbers, had originally been created to spy on opponents of the Vietnam War. On June 17, 1971, Nixon told his aide H.R. Haldeman he wanted the Plumbers to obtain files that might be in the safe of the Brookings Institution that could show that his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had ordered a bombing halt in Vietnam to help Nixon’s Democratic opponent in 1968, Hubert Humphrey. Nixon wanted to use the files to blackmail Johnson.


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