Shock And Law: The Year In Review

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaks at a news maker event, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

As the curtain falls and the house lights come up on the year in law it's fair to declare we've all been through a revelatory experience. Two hundred and twenty years removed from the signing of the Constitution, we learned in 2007 that the document is only as sound as the men and women interpreting and enforcing it. And this year it's hard to argue that those folks were up to their solemn task.

This was the year we learned how far beyond the law our government was willing to go - misleading the courts and destroying evidence - in the name of fighting the war on terror. It was the year we learned just how poorly an attorney general can act. We learned about the extent to which overzealous law enforcement officials took advantage of domestic surveillance powers to monitor peace activists. We learned to doubt the word of government lawyers when they swear to tell the truth. We learned more about the "unitary executive theory" and the power of David Addington.

But 2007 also was a year in which we learned about (and briefly obsessed over) Florida judge Larry Seidlin, the clown prince of justice who presided over a seemingly interminable Anna Nicole Smith hearing. It was a year in which we heard yet again from O.J. Simpson and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and Brittney Spears. Star quarterback Michael Vick soared through the legal atmosphere before plummeting into a federal prison on dog-fighting conspiracy charges. And a scan of hysteria-filled prime-time cable shows reminded us that mysteries about missing mothers, daughters or sisters still (and always are) a ratings plus.

By far the single biggest legal story of the year was the Alberto Gonzales-fueled implosion of the Justice Department.

It all started unraveling 11 months ago, when we began to learn the circumstances in which nine U.S. Attorneys - Republican and competent all - were dismissed by the Justice Department and the White House for not being "loyal Bushies." Those firings, which still have not been adequately explained, begat the U.S. Attorney scandal. And the scandal, which still is being investigated even today, resulted in mass departures from the Justice Department and a colossal loss of the prestige, reputation and morale there.

At the center of it all was the hapless Gonzales. Unable or unwilling to exercise independence or courage in the face of White House pressure, Gonzales failed utterly to convince lawmakers (or, for that matter, anyone else except his friend the President) that he was capable of restoring the values of fairness, objectivity, professionalism and nonpartisanship to the cadre of Department lawyers. After surviving a furor over his disastrous "torture memo" a few years earlier, 2007 was the year the bill came due to Gonzales for his many deficiencies of leadership, integrity, judgment and tone.

Another important story that tracked throughout the year was the story of the government's continuing efforts to finally try the hundreds of terror detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The White House and Pentagon continue to try to have it both ways - to pretend that they are giving the men fair trials without actually doing so - and the courts, including the United States Supreme Court, keep getting in the way. The Justices now are poised to resolve yet another detainee-based challenge - this time to the new Military Commissions Act - so don't be surprised if next year's Year-in-Review focuses upon that.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, 2007 was a year in which we saw develop clear voting trends among the two newest Justices, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. Both have proven to be as reliantly conservative as their most fervent backers had hoped. And both have helped push the Court even more further to the right. Siding over and over again with employers over employees, the Court backed a new ban on late-term abortion procedures and agreed to take up a huge case about the contours of the Second Amendment.

Only the whims and caprices of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing-vote on the Court, prevented an even more pronounced shift to the right. Kennedy sided with environmentalists in an important emissions test and seems poised to further limit the ability of prison officials to execute condemned men by lethal injection. Justice Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, took to the airwaves to pitch a relentlessly self-serving and disingenuous book even as he continued to refuse to say a peep from the bench during the Court's oral arguments.

One of the president's men - or, more precisely, one of the vice president's men, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby - was found guilty in March of obstructing justice and perjury stemming from the disclosure of the identity of a CIA agent. But Libby spent not a single minute in prison despite a brave and dogged effort by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, our modern day Eliott Ness. Libby's six-month sentence was commuted by a sympathetic President George W. Bush, who failed again this year to show any similar measure of compassion to John Walker Lindh, the once-upon-a-time "American Taliban" whose 20-year prison sentence is patently unjust.

Another one of the president's men, Charles "Cully" Stimson, then deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs at the Pentagon, decided this year that it would be a good idea to publicly coerce and threaten the private attorneys who have donated their time and expertise to represent, for free, some of the Gitmo detainees. Stimson said that big corporate clients should sever their times with the law firms whose attorneys were representing the detainees. He was promptly "resigned," but the damage already was done. It was one of the lowest points of a low year.

You can't count Jose Padilla among the president's men. The once-upon-a-time "dirty bomber" was convicted in a flash by a federal jury in Miami following a months-long trial, the evidence at which was as clear-cut as the Everglades. Of course, only months after Padilla was convicted on terror conspiracy charges did we learn that the Central Intelligence Agency had in 2005 destroyed terror interrogation tapes that might have assisted Padilla's defense. No matter. He's just as doomed as Lindh is. And, somewhere, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who made Padilla into the terror superstar he didn't deserve to be, is laughing.

We know after this atrocious year in the law that we have the government we deserve. Did you also know we have the legal coverage we deserve? Despite monumental legal developments which shook the justice system to its foundation, only some of which I've had the space to include here, the airwaves and the Internet were filled in 2007 with breathless coverage of the legal machinations of skanky starlets (Lohan and Spears) or dismal reality actresses (Smith) or people like Simpson and Hilton who now are famous (or infamous) precisely because they find themselves in legal jeopardy so often.

The hours spent covering these insipid people were hours unspent exploring the mighty ways in which the law has changed since September 11, 2001. They were hours unspent examining the death penalty in America and how its ineffective and often scandalous enforcement has led at least one state, New Jersey, to decide that 2007 would be the year to end capital punishment there. They were hours unspent figuring out who is the next Stimson or Gonzales or Padilla. They were hours unspent on covering the courts across the country, and the Supreme Court, and the judiciary committees in both houses of Congress.

In the carefree summer of 2001, all anyone wanted to talk about was poor Chandra Levy. Then the Twin Towers fell. The year we just endured proves that the Constitution has changed a lot since then. It also proved, unfortunately, that we haven't.