Libel. He’s a spy!
That man’s bad!” (A Man For All Seasons)
The moment political news (let’s be honest, any news—Kanye/Wiz Khalifa Twitter fight, anyone?) develops, one seems obliged to choose a side and have an opinion. That opinion must be ironclad and resist all attempts at reevaluation, especially new evidence. In fact, it’s best if you can immediately extrapolate your opinion into an aggressive worldview which allows simple identification of bad vs. good actors—then you can be certain you are a good actor, and know all the solutions to the world’s problems. Those solutions mostly involve stamping out the bad actors by any means necessary, preserving civic order and harmony for all the other good actors.
“There’s no law against that.
Then God can arrest him” (A Man For All Seasons).
The reaction to the David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt indictments tracked this pattern; they were hailed as a beacon of justice in a fascistic right-wing state or as a liberal prosecutor run amok. Take your pick. Matt Walsh, never afraid to weigh in on a topic without adequate understanding or information, proclaimed a “breathtaking miscarriage of justice.” The New York Times announced that politicians should “back away from an anti-abortion group that will stop at nothing to attack Planned Parenthood.”
Let’s pump the brakes and see exactly what happened, and what is likely to come next. David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt were indicted on two charges under Texas law: tampering with a governmental record and attempted purchasing of a human organ. At this point, the Harris County District Attorney can prosecute or decline to prosecute the charges—the indictment was the grand jury’s decision (though admittedly on the basis of evidence presented to them by the District Attorney’s office). The tampering charge relates to false California driver’s licenses they presented during their investigation, while the attempted purchasing charge… well, anyone familiar with the facts of the case can figure that one. Texas criminalizes both the purchase of human organs and offers to purchase human organs in separate statutes. Note that this means the organ does not have to be for sale; it is quite possible that you could offer to buy, be told they are not for sale—and still be guilty of a crime under Texas law.*¹
“And go he should, if he were the devil himself, until he broke the law!
So, now you’d give the devil benefit of law!
Yes, and what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
Yes! I’d cut through every law in England to do that!
Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide,
Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think
you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the devil the benefit of
law; for my own safety’s sake” (A Man For All Seasons).
Understanding the legal mechanics is key to having an informed opinion of this situation. The rule of law is essential to civilized society because it secures every right and obligation we have. It is easy, when presented with the unjust taking of life sanctioned by civil law, to proclaim that we will cut down all the laws in our country if we can only stop this. No matter the means necessary! The prosecutor must get the bad actors. Little thought is given, of course, to the aftermath; our righteous anger is so strong, our determination so indignant, that we will stop at nothing. In seeking to bend existing law to our own will, to cut down the bad actors we see so clearly, we distort the means of justice itself. Do we think we can stand in the winds that will blow then?
Here’s what I mean. I am giving my opinion here, not a legal conclusion, but David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt are charged with crimes of which they are almost certainly guilty. Were their intentions noble? Yes. Was it in service of a good cause? Yes. But to a prosecutor, one charged with carrying out the law instead of making it, that does not and cannot matter. Is it possible that this was a politically motivated indictment designed to punish Daleiden and Merritt for having the wrong cause? Yes. However, the mere existence of the indictment does not establish that.²
Daleiden and Merritt are charged with creating fake driver’s licenses and submitting offers to purchase human organs, both violations of Texas law. Facially, these charges make sense and match what we know they were trying to do. The fact that charges were brought does not mean that there is a great conspiracy to destroy pro-lifers in the Harris County District Attorney’s office. It’s possible both that Daleiden and Merritt were entirely justified in their actions, and that they should accept the consequences of their action under the law.
History teaches us that we have good example and counsel in this course of obedience to and respect for the law even in the face of other injustice. Socrates declined to flee jail despite offers of help from friends, effectively condemning himself to death, because he viewed respect for the law as integral to civil society. St. Thomas More refused to speak a word against the King’s legislated status as Supreme Head of the Church until he was already convicted and condemned. An act of great cowardice? No! Like Socrates, he recognized why it was so important for him to defer to the law to the very end—without respect for the human institution of law, civil society can only last so long before the
whole rotten mess collapses. The ends do not justify the means; if we wish to defy a just law, we must accept the consequences of that choice under the law. The law exists not only as a sword against the wicked; it is also our shield, and by misusing or disregarding it we weaken that shield at our peril.
Tim Cantu is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and Notre Dame Law School and an attorney in Florida and Washington, though not simultaneously. The opinions within are not those of his employer, nor are they legal advice.
¹ I am an attorney. But I am not their attorney, your attorney, or a Texas attorney.
² There is a good counterargument that this is a case ripe for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and Devon Anderson should drop these charges. That could still happen, and that conversation requires a significant detour from the current topic, so I decline to address it here.