Lawyers as Politicians

Most American politicians are educated as lawyers. According to’s incomplete statistics, politicians are six times as likely to be lawyers than the next most common politician’s former occupation, farmers.

What is it that attracts lawyers to politics? And what is it that attracts voters to lawyers, who in other circumstances they hate?

All I see in these congressional investigation hearings (Sara Taylor, Alberto Gonzales, et al) every day now is lawyers conferring with their lawyers about refusing to answer questions on the grounds of executive privilege or the fifth amendment or legal stonewalling (“I don’t recall.”). These are public officials (and deputies to public officials) who are actively changing the judicial, executive, and legislative systems (they might not even be party to any of those branches, i.e. Cheney) to advance their partisan politics. Then they use their legal experience to find loopholes in the system. There is never any apology to the American people, never any evidence of feeling sorry for causing the United States to lose its prominence in the world. They don’t even see what’s going on as a constitutional crisis or even a blight upon American principles.

Lawyers’ jobs are to play the game of law. If you’re a prosecutor, you might use the press to affect the jury. If you’re a defendant’s lawyer, your job is to mitigate punishment at the least, or test the prosecutor’s process to get dismissal, mistrial, or favorable decision. Yes, that is the way it should be…in a courtroom. But what about for federal institutions?

Is this only an issue because of the Bush Administration’s mis-use of the federal government? Bush’s team decided to remove public policy figures from its federal institutions, people who were trained and educated in their fields of work. Rumsfeld kicked out the top generals in the military in order to institute his vision for the military’s force projection capability. Firing Shinseki, who was well-liked and predicted the size of troops needed in Iraq, and replacing him with the likes of Myers and Pace, two yes-men, was Rumsfeld’s doing. The attorney general scandal has shown that Alberto Gonzales was complicit in firing non-partisan lawyers and explicitly hiring loyal ones.

Does the system normally work when the highest leaders have respect for the government’s institutions? Are lawyers best for politics because of their ability to parse the legal ramifications of their decisions in accordance with constitutional and international law? Or should they be relying on their legal counsel for that?

Would a businessman make a better politician for a nation to have?

Or do these morally neutral professions of business and law corrupt people when they gain power over public policy and goods? Perhaps I’m naive but when I think of businessmen, I think of them positively, generally, but slightly shady in the sense that they are always seeking a profit. Trust does mean something in business but only as long as deals are mutually beneficial.

When I think of lawyers, I do not assume that they are committed towards preserving the letter of the law or even the spirit of the law — that much is pretty subjective and even the Supreme Court can’t agree on interpretation or strict adherence. Their job is to win a case, either to bring in clients or to get selected for a judgeship.

I mean, even in tax law, companies employ their own accountants to think of shady ways to cook the books wherever possible. H&R Block advertises its success at finding deductions for clients. The best accountants barely pay any taxes at all because they know how to game the system.

When I think of public policy types, I think of people who care about the government and see its role in the success of the country. By the nature of the salary, people who go into it are not seeking a huge salary (although the security of the job is pretty enticing). I also think of people who think in terms of a public good and are committed in some way to helping out. The federal government believes this too, actively seeking out people for employment who have worked with the government before.

Surely there’s lots of discussion or sacred texts on the subject of lawyers as politicians. This article calls into question Alexis de Tocqueville’s assertion, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question,” which is usually trotted out from what I can tell when this subject comes up. The article says that some of the largest political issues were never resolved through judicial systems.

Another thing: the judicial system takes on a sort of absolute certainty in its decision-making. If you select people for government who are adept and powerful enough to change the laws and choose the right judges, then they will re-enforce your politics, and the people will say, “Well, the judiciary found it to be legal and just, so I guess it must be so.”

These partisan lawyers are no friends of America and they’re gaming the system.

So what are we to think? Is it naive to think that those educated in public policy should be favored in politics because they are biased towards protecting federal institutions? Are public policy/international affairs types ignorant of larger issues? How can they successfully turn themselves into politicians? Should they? Where is their conflict of interest? What sort of institution protects the people and the principles?

For what it’s worth, every presidential candidate graduated from law school of some sort except for Bill Richardson (who I have heard on all accounts is a great governor who works in the interest of the people), graduate of the Fletcher School. Fletcher is, to be fair, one of the closest non-law legal programs you can go into though. McCain also didn’t go to law school but he’s a rare exception…who’s also batshit crazy. Seriously, everyone else has a JD. It’s creepy.

What do you guys think, particularly if you live in other countries? Am I just a kool-aid drinking government employee hippie?

One Comment

  1. The lots of lawyers angle seems logical from two directions:
    -practicing lawyers would become interested in writing/reforming laws, having been affected by badly-written ones (or inspired by really-well-written ones) in their work
    -people interested in politics would go to law school to understand the ins and outs of their field.
    That they choose to use their lawyerly powers for partisan evil isn’t a reflection on their knowledge but on a failure of their ethics. Maybe the legal profession needs better ethical training (does it? I haven’t been to law school), but legal skills must surely be an asset to someone looking to legislate.

    What is more curious is that no one else wants to get into politics, which I would guess would tend to limit the perspective of the government to the mechanics of law-writing at the expense of the farther-reaching implications of a piece of legislation. Canada’s parliament has a lot of lawyers in it too, but there are a few medical doctors and one or two with scientific backgrounds as well as a few former social workers. While I’m sure these people make statements that are completely out to lunch from a legislative perspective, they have their own expertise to bring to bear, and sometimes a naive legal viewpoint can remind others of the heart of the matter.

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