The political chaos into which America was thrown in 2016 and from it has yet to emerge was given an extra lease of life this week with the announcement that Donald Trump faces charges over his financial affairs. Inevitably the legal case is being seen by virtually the entire country through the prism of partisan politics. Those who support Trump and who want to see him return to the White House in 2025 believe the former president has been instigated for purely political reasons, while those who oppose him see this as fair, if delayed, justice.
It’s hard to imagine a similar level of polarisation with regard to a prosecution over here. In the UK we have, thankfully, managed to avoid the politicisation of our prosecution service, leaving most of the public with the sense that justice is indeed blind, even to people’s political views. None of this is to suggest that New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the man spearheading the investigation and indictment of Trump, is doing so only from political motives. But when so many prosecutors in the US are elected on political platforms (as Bragg was) it’s inevitable that suspicions arise about individuals’ motivations.
In America, everything is about politics and no one from beyond your own political beliefs and prejudices can be trusted to act in good faith. Its legal system, notwithstanding, has worked reasonably well over the centuries but has started to fall apart and lose public trust with the intensification of the culture wars and the associated melodrama of Trump himself.
There are few who look across the Atlantic and yearn to replicate such a political model here. But there are some. In recent weeks, around 120 prominent lawyers have indicated their willingness to sign a declaration that they will not prosecute climate change activists involved in “peaceful protests” – presumably including those which have brought streets and motorways to a standstill on various occasions. While these guardians of public morals may not need to stand for election to their posts, they are introducing personal opinion and political conviction into their jobs just as enthusiastically as any directly-elected DA anywhere in the US.
One lawyer went on to say that he was merely signing the declaration in solidarity. But this misses the point, which is that publicity-hungry lawyers are determined to signal their virtue to the masses and things like facts are not going to stop them. The danger here is plain to see: anything that is touched by politics loses the respect and trust of the public. The legal profession, like the monarchy, is supposed to be above politics. That’s why it is (currently) trusted by the people to do the job of dispensing justice. It cannot do that, neither can it be trusted to do it, if it indulges in public support for lawyers’ pet causes.
Whether or not Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of Trump is motivated by his personal politics or not, that judgment has already been made by millions of Americans. We should look at the American system and quail, we should be thankful that we have resisted injecting politics into our own legal system. And we should take a dim view of the wealthy and privileged professionals who want to do so.
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