Friday, January 28, 2011

No matter how much some may want to believe, The Law is open to interpretation

It is borderline ridiculous whenever people use the “rule of law” phrase to defend some abhorrent action, claiming that The Law is absolute in what it says and we, the people, have no business questioning it.

The reality is that law is very much open to interpretation – as evidenced by all the hoopla this week surrounding Rahm Emanuel and whether or not he is sufficiently a Chicago resident, as required by The Law, to run for mayor.

WELL, IT SEEMS The Law has its own contradictions and it depends on how a judge wants to interpret it to the specifics of a certain case. In Emanuel's case, an appeals court panel and the Illinois Supreme Court took the exact same legal briefs written by both sides to argue the case and came up with radically different interpretations about how The Law impacted Emanuel’s circumstances. Which is why "Rahm Lives!," and some in Chicago now shudder in disgust at the thought.

No matter how much election law specialist Burt Odelson likes to spin the situation to claim that Emanuel’s situation is a clear-cut case of NOT having lived in Chicago long enough to run for mayor, there is always room for interpretation.

That latter statement became all the more apparent on Thursday when a Chicago Police Department panel that oversees pensions for retired officers decided that retired Commander Jon Burge was entitled to keep his pension – which pays him just over $3,000 per month (before taxes) for his two decades of service to the people of Chicago.

This ruling came nearly one week after Burge was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison on federal criminal charges that relate to that very service. Burge was the commander of the violent crimes unit for the Far South Side.

BURGE’S BEHAVIOR TOWARD people in his unit’s custody became so notorious that it was one factor  in the restructuring of the Chicago Police districts that saw the old Pullman Area be renamed the Calumet Area (as though erasing the “Pullman” name could erase Burge’s deeds).

So Burge is a retired cop on his way to prison.

Yet in the eyes of half of the police department’s pension board, he’s not a corrupt cop. They voted 4-4 when they met Tuesday on whether Burge could keep his pension. It would have required a 5-3 vote, at least, to deprive him of the retirement benefits.

The people on the pension board took the logic that Burge was convicted of perjury for his testimony during a 2003 civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court, not for his actual behavior while serving as a police officer.

THEY ALSO NOTE that since he was removed from the police department in 1993, he wasn’t a police officer when he committed the act of perjury for which he is now doing prison time.

All of that is 100 percent true. So the interpretation of those four individuals may well have some basis in the law.

Yet people who view issues from a more honest perspective (instead of trying to find the loophole that allows them to run roughshod over others) can’t help but think that something is seriously out of whack here.

That lawsuit for which Burge provided false testimony WAS directly related to the behavior of he and his counterparts in the Pullman Area back in the early 1980s. Burge claimed in his testimony he did nothing illegal, which federal prosecutors said was false.

U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE Joan Lefkow, the federal judge who last week sent Burge to prison (he has until mid-March to report), said while sentencing him that she did not believe his denials under oath that he knew nothing of torture tactics being used by police under his command. But by the “harsh” standard of the “rule of law,” none of that matters.

One might argue that prosecutors should just go after Burge for the torture. The problem is that option is not possible.

Because city officials went through so much denial in the 1990s that Burge, or any other Chicago police officer, would use torture tactics, there has now been too much time that has passed between the criminal acts that took place down on 111th Street and now.

The Statute of Limitations has literally passed. Burge can never be prosecuted for the actual improper acts.

IT MEANS WE have a retired cop going to prison, yet technically he’s not a corrupt cop. I suppose anyone who implies that Burge, who is 63, is now being sent away as punishment for torture tactic use is in danger of committing libel.

But the fact that Burge has a perjury conviction means we can think of him as a convicted liar. But even though his “lies” were about his police conduct, it doesn’t affect that police conduct itself.

The end result is that Burge, if he survives his time in a federal correctional center, could wind up with some cash to live on – even though I would expect his legal bills have eaten up much of what financial resources he has had.

People who are going to scream about the “rule of law” will probably applaud this outcome. I can’t help but think some sort of change is needed, or else the phrase “rule of law” is going to start taking on the taint that “State’s Rights” took for an older generation that saw it as a legal dodge to justify segregation and other abhorrent policies.


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