The Edwards Trial: A Bad Idea From Before the Start

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.

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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, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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