Friday, August 15, 2014

How Bad Ideas Grow Legs

Last January, Instapundit lawprof Glenn Reynolds wrote a short essay that became the darling of many folks who take an interest in criminal justice issues entitled Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime. To be kind, it was a simplistic rehash of long-time, discredited silver-bullet solutions to complex problems. The only virtue was that it came from Reynolds, who was a law professor and thus credible by definition even though he was dabbling at the edges of an area of law about which he knew nothing.

It was excoriated here. Gideon beat it up at A Public Defender as well. Unlike Reynolds, this wasn't a theoretical exercise for us. We lived with the problems, and would wind up living with whatever inane solution seemed like a cool idea to an academic.  Whereas Reynolds' mantle of scholarly credibility was an asset for others whose interest came from a distance, ours was nuts and bolts, from living with the detritus of bad ideas in the trenches.

Radley Balko took us to task for being critical of Reynolds. The Agitator offered a homily of cooperation, arguing that we ought to work with luminaries like Reynolds rather than saying mean things like their ideas aren't fabulous. After explaining what was horribly wrong with a particular idea promoted by Reynolds that Radley found especially interesting (loser pays in criminal litigation), I wrote:

Radley also questioned by twit why I wasn't more open to embracing the ideas proffered by Glenn Reynolds and Conor Friedersdorf, "And it's probably more productive to engage, persuade new allies than to shun and mock them."  Since I hate to be a shunner or mocker, and I try to be relatively informative as reflected in this response to Radley's query, I look forward to Reynolds and Friedersdorf, our new allies, engaging. Engage away, guys. Your turn.

Of course, I was shunning and mocking, just as Radley said. But then, I had no plan to suck up to Reynolds in an effort to gain him as an ally anymore than I planned to teach a pig to sing. As players in punditry go, Reynolds is a major player,* and he enjoys his importance. He doesn't swim with minnows like Gid and me. At most, he eats us for a snack. Radley may have been well-intended, but didn't really appreciate the pecking order.

Of course, there was nothing to stop Reynolds, either before or after he published his Ham Sandwich essay, from speaking with people who were actually knowledgeable about criminal law, whether that was Gid and/or me, or some other trench lawyers, who could explain why good ideas on paper don't play as well in the courtroom.  But no. He didn't. Since it was his essay being published to enlighten the world, it was his duty to get a clue, and his choice not to.

My point to Radley at the time was the when loud voices with ascribed credibility write something like this, bad things happen. Bad ideas are taken more seriously. Other people will mistakenly assume that Reynolds, lawprof and all, has a clue what he's talking about and his ideas must have merit. After all, lawprofs could never be wrong about lawstuff.  And now that Reynolds had rung the bell, it could not be unrung.

George Will, certainly one of this country's leading conservative intellectuals, heard the peal of Reynolds' bell this week. In an otherwise excellent column on Senators Leahy and Rand's efforts to provide a backdoor to mandatory minimums (which raises the question of why they aren't seeking to end mandatory minimums through the front door, but we'll take it anyway they offer it), Will goes from the sublime to the ridiculous:

The House Judiciary Committee has created an Over-Criminalization Task Force. Its members should read “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” by Harvey Silverglate, a libertarian lawyer whose book argues that prosecutors could indict most of us for three felonies a day. And the task force should read the short essay “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime” by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee. Given the axiom that a competent prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and given the reality of prosecutorial abuse — particularly, compelling plea bargains by overcharging with “kitchen sink” indictments — Reynolds believes “the decision to charge a person criminally should itself undergo some degree of due process scrutiny.”

He also suggests banning plea bargains: “An understanding that every criminal charge filed would have to be either backed up in open court or ignominiously dropped would significantly reduce the incentive to overcharge. . . . Our criminal justice system, as presently practiced, is basically a plea-bargain system with actual trials of guilt or innocence a bit of showy froth floating on top.”

While Instapundit is a Big Kahuna on the interwebz and among academics, George Will has a soap box that dwarfs Reynolds. And he's taken Reynolds' "ideas" mainstream, not only crediting Reynolds for his position as an academic, but taking for granted that he's got criminal law chops.  It's unlikely that George checked Reynolds out at Tennessee Law School, where he teaches Administrative Law, Constitutional Law, Law, Science, and Technology, Space Law, Internet Law. See criminal law in there? See anything in his past to suggest even a passing familiarity with the actual practice of criminal law? Me neither.

Yet, I look forward to some fine senators extolling the virtue of a dangerous and hare-brained reform of the law, citing to Glenn Reynolds' Ham Sandwich essays as the font of practical criminal law brilliance.  Because the myth has now been created and George Will gave it legs.

And this is how we end up with monumentally bad ideas being enshrined in law.

* For those who aren't familiar with Instapundit, this from Reynolds' Wikipedia page

Much of Instapundit's content consists of links to other sites, often with brief comments. (His frequent use of "heh," "indeed," and "read the whole thing" have been widely imitated and are often parodied by other bloggers.) Reynolds encourages readers to explore the wider blogosphere and to fully read articles and posts to which he links.
And that's the foundation for being a major player on the internet.

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