Unraveling the John Edwards Case (Politico Arena)


The jury considering the charges against former Senator John Edwards has already surprised many observers by taking more time to consider the case than it took the Edwards lawyers to put on their defense.  There is speculation that the case will be appealed if Edwards is convicted, raising questions about the judge’s instructions to the jury about the evidence and applicable standards of law.

One of the most interesting aspects of the case has been the disagreements about whether the case should have been brought in the first place - disagreements that are not falling along party or ideological lines. Those speaking out against the prosecution include Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and former Federal Election Commissioner Scott Thomas, who testified in the case (with the jury out of the room).

On a recent Diane Rehm show on NPR, I agreed with one of my frequent antagonists, Republican lawyer Jan Baran.  Jan believes that the Edwards prosecution should have been pursued.  Washington Post opinion writer Ruth Marcus questioned whether it was a wise use of prosecutorial discretion.

The case has presented the Department of Justice's Office of Public Integrity with a lose-lose scenario from the outset.  If they did not prosecute Edwards, the public message would be clear: the law condones a candidate for our nation's highest office taking millions of dollars from wealthy benefactors to buy off his mistress and keep his political ambitions alive, despite the existence of emails and conversations that showed he was well aware of the arrangements that were made.

If the prosecutors did pursue the case and lost, the message would be the same.  The conclusion would be that the law does not prohibit individuals running for public office to find rich sugar daddies to underwrite efforts to hide the candidate’s dirty laundry from public view as long as the purpose remains unspoken or unacknowledged by the candidate.

Based on press reports, it is difficult to assess whether the prosecutors presented sufficient evidence to meet the high standards required - appropriately - for a criminal prosecution.  And it will be fascinating to see how the jury interprets the “for the purpose of influencing an election” standard that is in the statute.  The bulk of the case appears to rely on the credibility of former Edwards aide Andrew Young.

But it was correct for this prosecution to be undertaken.  As Jan Baran has said about the consequences of a loss, “Why wouldn’t a wealthy individual be able to pay for the tuition of a candidate’s kids going to college? Or a mortgage?  Maybe they’ll get them a second vacation home. There are some very fundamental issues at stake here.”

In the end, it is likely that Edwards will just be seen as another of the corrupt politicians in Washington.  The more valuable impact of this prosecution should be to demand - and expect - better from our leaders.  And to hold our politicians accountable for their actions when they seek or obtain power.

This opinion piece by Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee originally appeared in Politico's Arena on May 25, 2012.