Executive Power Gone Wild

Alfred Hitchcock reputedly said, “I’m not against the police, I’m just afraid of them.” He was not afraid of them in the horror and gore sense. Nor was it the friendly street cop on patrol which raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Rather, I believe his sentiment was that there is something inherently scary and bone chilling surrounding those with official authority, those who watch us, those having some power over us, and those who have the ability to use that power to interrupt, throw obstacles before, harass, or in some cases destroy the lives of the rest of us. Three instances recently in the news remind us that indeed it may be wise to be afraid, very afraid of those with authority over us. The problem with authority can arise under three general types: (1) abuse of authority, (2) those in power being above authority, and (3) exercise of power without authority.

A recent example of the first, abuse of authority, can be found in the Duke rape case and District Attorney Mike Nifong. Here a local district attorney almost destroyed the lives of several young men where there was no evidence of guilt, and in fact there was much exculpatory evidence. He didn’t investigate the case at all, and he used the power of his office for what? – political gain, the advancement of his own career, to gain favor with a particular segment of the community? Whatever the reason, don’t you look at local district attorneys in a new light? Are you confident that you would be able to withstand unfounded charges being brought against you?

An example of those in power being above authority is the case of New Jersey Governor John Corzine, who was almost fatally injured because he failed to obey seat belt laws while also exceeding the legal speed limit. Here we have the highest executive officer in the state failing to comply with perhaps two of the easiest regulations to obey. What does this say? To me it is clear – the regulations meant for the rest of us are too uncomfortable or inconvenient for him. He, after all, was too important and too much in a hurry to be bothered with what everyone else in the state is expected to do. How many rules and regulations are you expected to obey on a daily basis? Maybe it would be a good idea to take a personal inventory and count them. After doing so, would the example of Mr. Corzine give you confidence that they apply to everyone equally?

The third type of problem, exercise of power of without authority, is suggested by the Appellate Division’s decision Tuesday in People of the State of New York, by Eliot Spitzer, the Attorney Gen. of the State of New York v Grasso, 2007 NY Slip Op 03990. In that case, Attorney General Spitzer decided to bring certain charges against New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso because he received $187 million in compensation because – well . . . basically because Mr. Spitzer didn’t like it. He thought it was too much. The problem, as the Appellate Division pointed out, was that Mr. Spitzer simply lacked the authority to bring most of the charges against Grasso. Mr. Spitzer was in effect trying to enforce his personal dislikes, and to make policy determinations which was the business of the legislature or the Stock Exchange itself. What other executive officers are out there with agendas seeking to make crimes out of things simply because they don’t like them?

Are these isolate incidents? Probably. But maybe there is something happening out there wherein executive powers have somehow come to believe that they alone are above the law, and in effect the law itself. If so, Hitchcock’s fear is truly justified. After all how likely is it that the local motel clerk will stab you to death in the shower? Isn’t it more likely that there are more examples, that don’t make it into the press, likes the ones above where executive officers have – to use a phrase – simply gone wild. Such examples give us pause to think how important it is that we constantly watch those in power, restrict the reach of their powers, and be very careful in the people we select to govern our lives.

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