Leonard Pitts: The rule of law could use a win

What if some of us begin to feel like we’re the only suckers still following the rules?

(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via AP, Pool) Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Dear Attorney General Merrick Garland:

You are doubtless familiar with the old adage that, “The wheels of justice may grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.” As we watch your Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of the criminal conspiracy that was the Trump White House, many of us can readily vouch for the first half of the axiom. Justice has, indeed, proven slow. Whether the result will be “exceedingly fine” is the thing we have trouble with.

Eighteen months after Trump’s army stormed the U.S. Capitol in a deadly riot, many of those who served as foot soldiers and cannon fodder have had their day in court. But the leader of the pack and his henchmen are still walking around free. Many observers are eager to see that rectified — and have not been reticent in saying so.

In a press conference Wednesday, you seemed fed up with carping about the perceived timidity and inertia of your department and you. “A central tenet of the rule of law,” you said, “is that we do not do our investigations in public.” You added that, “We have to hold accountable every person who is criminally responsible for trying to overturn a legitimate election ... in a way filled with integrity and professionalism.”

In other words: Back off and let us do our jobs. Your pique is arguably understandable. But there is something here you may not be grasping.

People are impatient, yes. They demand accountability, yes. But the other factor at play is simply that it’s been a very tough time for the aforementioned rule of law.

One is reminded of an old trope from Western movies: The angry mob descends on the jailhouse with torches and rope, ready to drag out some prisoner and do street justice. But the sheriff stands them off, tells them to leave the prisoner’s fate to the law.

Clichd as that scene is, it captures an important truth. Fealty to the rule of law is not a native instinct. To the contrary, the native instinct is to demand instant satisfaction if somebody has done you wrong. But the rule of law asks us to exchange torches and rope for a set of rules to be administered on our behalf by the government. Thus do human beings carve civil societies from wildernesses of social primitivism.

But what if some of us begin to feel like we’re the only suckers still following those rules while others are running roughshod over them, profiting in the process and paying no price for their transgressions? That, sir, is the story of the last seven years, a story told in Robert Mueller’s refusal to refer a criminal president for criminal prosecution, told in obstruction and witness tampering, in incitements of violence and actual violence, in acts of extortion, treason and insurrection unparalleled in American history, most of it done openly and, in fact, brazenly.

The rule of law has seldom seemed more impotent or ineffectual, nor made its believers look more like chumps. Which should concern you, because the one thing that rule requires, the one thing without which it cannot function, is the people’s faith, something the last seven years have made difficult in the extreme.

That is the unspoken, but no less urgent, need of the moment, Mr. Attorney General, the reason your investigation cannot be thorough — or fast — enough. What you are hearing in your critics is not just impatience or a demand for accountability, but a need to see one of the foundation principles of society vindicated before it’s too late to matter. It has been a rough seven years, sir.

The rule of law could use a win.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com