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The “Letter of the Law”

eye on the news

The “Letter of the Law”

Mayor de Blasio was always frank about his adherence to appearances. March 17, 2017
New York
Politics and law

State and federal prosecutors announced simultaneously yesterday that they were dropping their criminal investigations into Mayor de Blasio’s various scandals, even though New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance says that the mayor’s fundraising efforts “appear contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits.” While many New Yorkers were surprised at the news that no indictments would be forthcoming, nobody was taken aback by Vance’s qualified exculpation about violating the “spirit of the laws.” Indeed, anyone who has been listening has heard Mayor de Blasio say the same thing himself, repeatedly.

Over the last few years, de Blasio has spoken frequently about his strict adherence to the law while defending his fundraising practices. Last April, for instance, he said “the law is law—what we did—everything was very carefully and scrupulously checked for consistency with city, state, and federal law for absolute consistency with any other standards that had to be held. We didn’t do any of this lightly.”

A month later, on May 13, 2016, the mayor again noted his careful observance of legal limits, saying, “we can show you how we very scrupulously followed the law and followed the ethical guidance.” A week later, he twice repeated that he had “scrupulously” followed the law and that “we have laws governing what’s appropriate . . . that’s what we used as our guidepost.”

With all his talk about scruples and scrupulousness, it is hard to understand how the mayor wound up in the middle of a multiyear ethics investigation involving multiple jurisdictions and at least half a dozen lines of inquiry. After all, if he was so painstaking about minutely charting the limits of legality, and so intensely conscientious about staying within those lines, isn’t it bizarre—almost like something out of Kafka—that de Blasio somehow fell under so much prosecutorial scrutiny?

The mayor spoke to this seeming injustice himself last year, musing, “I’m really concerned about a double standard here where we do everything to the letter of the law . . . meanwhile, a lot of people are doing a lot worse and not getting much examination.” He used the phrase “letter of the law” repeatedly, emphasizing how closely he and his team hewed to every jot and tittle of the code.

The curious thing about scrupulously following the “letter of the law” is that it sounds like an excuse for bad behavior. When someone gets away with something on a “technicality,” it usually means that under the “letter of the law” they couldn’t be convicted. Bragging about having “scrupulously” observed the letter of the law sounds a bit like saying under oath, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Bandying or mincing words, parsing or stretching the truth, hemming and hawing: there are many phrases describing the way people (especially politicians) try to get away with something. Think of “I followed the letter of the law” as basically synonymous with “I violated the spirit of the law.” Mayor de Blasio seems to have been telling us for years that he was doing just that. All we had to do was believe him.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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