Today’s progressives prefer summary trial convictions based on popular sentiment.
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While an apprehensive nation awaits the outcome of a Minneapolis police officer’s murder trial, it’s possible that the administration of American justice could soon be characterized by what future historians may come to call the Chelsea Handler standard.
As the trial of Derek Chauvin got underway a month ago, Ms. Handler, who has a day-job as a comedian but has branched out recently into the field of jurisprudence, issued a profound observation on Twitter : “So pathetic that there’s a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”
You might think that more than 800 years after the Magna Carta and 230 years after the Bill of Rights, some notions of due process, presumption of innocence and protection against arbitrary justice might have embedded themselves in the minds of even our densest celebrities.
But while it’s easy to mock, we should be careful not to assume that this taste for summary conviction on the basis of popular sentiment is confined to unfunny comedians. It seems to be widely shared among the ideologues who now control the Democratic Party, the media and cultural elites.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, joined demonstrations this weekend in Minnesota. She told supporters that if the Chauvin trial verdict goes the wrong way, “we’ve got to not only stay in the street but we’ve got to fight for justice.”
You may recall a president got pilloried a while ago for urging his supporters to “fight” for their desired outcome. It was noted then that the term is a well-worn rhetorical phrase that doesn’t necessarily amount to a literal incitement to violence. But there can’t be much doubt about the import of what Ms. Waters said. She made her remarks in Brooklyn Center, a few miles from the barricaded Minneapolis courthouse where the Chauvin trial is taking place and the site of the killing last weekend of a black man by a police officer. The place has been aflame for the past week in an orgy of rioting.
The Handler standard, or the Maxine maxim—the idea that we don’t really need a trial to know whether someone is guilty of a heinous crime—has always had its adherents. There have surely been miscarriages of justice—acquittals of guilty people and convictions of innocent ones—throughout history. The jury system is never perfect.
But what’s frighteningly new about our current climate is that the rejection of apparently unwelcome trial outcomes is now part of the dominant progressive critique of our longstanding political and civic order. If U.S. institutions are the product of white-supremacist exploitation—as is essentially the consensus of the people who run the government, most corporations, and leading cultural institutions—then the judicial system itself is inherently and systemically unjust. If the principle of equality before the law is to be supplanted by the objective of “equity” in outcome, then only outcomes that serve the higher objective of collective racial justice can be considered legitimate.
So trials that produce the “wrong” verdict are not just miscarriages of justice. They are an indictment of the entire system.
The ascendancy of this new progressive radicalism adds a frightening element to the unease the nation feels this week as the jury deliberates in Minneapolis. By all accounts the trial of Mr. Chauvin has been rigorous, methodical and fair. The prosecution seemed to make a strong case that Mr. Floyd died at least in part as a result of the officer’s actions. The defense may have sowed some doubts about whether Mr. Chavin’s intent rose to the level of culpability required of the most serious charges.
But under our new rules, the jury’s verdict will be tolerated only if it goes the “right” way.
This rejection of the legitimacy of the judicial process is rooted in the same neo-Marxist ideology—a race- and identity-based interpretation of structuralism—that holds sway over the minds of much of our ruling class.
To the old Marxists, the capitalists were the exploiters. In “The ABC of Communism,” published in 1920, Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky used language that sounds strikingly familiar today. They denounced the courts as instruments of “bourgeois justice,” which was “carried on under the guidance of laws passed in the interests of the exploiting class,” and recommended instead the establishment of “proletarian courts.”
In one of the more savage ironies of history, some two decades later the authors themselves were tried by such courts under Josef Stalin and sentenced to death.
Yet even Stalin thought some kind of judicial proceeding was necessary. Our modern revolutionaries would dispense even with show trials.