The Edwards Trial: A Bad Idea From Before the Start

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You don't have to have a shred of respect for the man -- and you probably don't -- to appreciate what a waste of precious time this case has been for the Justice Department.

j-eds trial-body-2.jpgReuters

IN THE BEGINNING

The campaign finance prosecution of disgraced former presidential candidate John Edwards always reminded me of that cute Hugh Grant movie many of us saw a few years back titled The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. The premise of the movie, and of the train wreck that was United States v. Edwards, is that the ground changed, literally in the movie and figuratively in Greensboro, North Carolina, between the start of the story and its end.

The foggy corner of the world of campaign finance law has indeed been largely transformed since 2008 and 2009, the time when Republican-holdover U.S. Attorney George Holding, a man with a plan and political aspirations in North Carolina, began to investigate some of the big-money donations made to Edwards during his dramatic and doomed presidential campaign. Four years ago, for example, most of the nation still believed that the First Amendment permitted rational campaign finance regulations.

That was before January 2010, when the United States Supreme Court swept away much of the statutory underpinning of America's campaign funding restrictions in its controversial Citizens United ruling. That case involved a different federal statute than the one at issue in the Edwards case, but the Court's conservative majority could hardly have been more clear: If the Constitution permits individuals and corporations to donate directly to candidates, it necessarily permits the candidates to receive those donations.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has for the past four years been buffeted about in a series of high-profile, politically-charged cases. The Barry Bonds obstruction case didn't work out as well as the feds had hoped. The first Roger Clemens obstruction trial ended in a mistrial. And just last week the feds announced, after a lengthy internal investigation, that they had punished two prosecutors who withheld evidence from defense lawyers in the prosecution of Ted Stevens, the former senior senator from Alaska.

When you try a man in 2012 for white-collar conduct which occurred in 2008, and when the intervening years are marked by political and constitutional changes that make the relevant laws even more toothless than they already were, you are just asking for trouble. Federal prosecutors were just asking for trouble by pushing the Edwards case. And trouble is what they found. You don't have to have a shred of respect for Edwards -- and you probably don't -- to appreciate what a waste of precious time and energy this case has been.

IN THE END

After nine days of deliberations, the jury of eight women and four men was evidently just as vexed and unpersuaded by the government's evidence against Edwards as were two of the former chairmen of the Federal Election Commission, defense witnesses both, who were prepared to testify at trial that the donations Edwards received were not illegal. The trial judge refused to allow the bulk of this testimony to reach jurors -- which would likely have generated a live issue for appeal had Edwards been convicted -- but it didn't matter.

Nor did it matter that government attorneys tried so hard to make Andrew Young, their star witness, a credible tribune to the conspiracy. After weeks of testimony, with so much of the attorneys' focus upon Young, do you know what the jurors asked for first when they finally got to deliberate? It was nothing to do with Young. It was instead records and other written evidence relating to one of the donations. The jury wasn't willing to convict Edwards based on Young's story. He was in essence a bad star witness -- something prosecutors had every reason to believe he would be.

Indeed, whatever else it means, the mistrial is another courtroom embarrassment for the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder, who won't file criminal charges in the big cases people are talking about (like Wall Street fraud) but who evidently can't get his line attorneys to succeed in these picayune cases no one wants to see brought. That's a bad combination for a justice department, any justice department, because it suggests both a lack of value in prosecutorial priorities and a lack of trial competence. If you aren't going to fight the big ones, you have to land the little ones.

And that's what John Edwards is today, even more so than when this trial first began. A man diminished. Sure, he's just avoided a big fine and the potential of a few months in a minimum-security federal prison (the idea that he would have served hard time here is preposterous). But the trial revealed and chronicled the grim, infuriating details of Edwards' many deceptions more honestly and earnestly than we'd previously known. There is now an official record of all of it -- for his historians to cull through when they render their own future verdicts about this crown prince of squandered opportunities.

The Edwards' acquittal and mistrial thus mark an untidy end to an era in campaign-finance law prosecutions. We will likely never see its like again (just as we had never seen its like before). In the age of Citizens United, and Sheldon Adelson and the gang, jurors simply aren't going to buy the idea of criminalizing this sort of conduct. Or at least jurors aren't going to do so without a clear sign from Congress or the Supreme Court that such donations are worth making a federal case about. And to me that says more about our judges and legislators than it does about our jurors.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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