Edwards’ Campaign Finance Trial Bigger than One Defendant

The John Edwards trial began today in North Carolina, and there is no chance that the media would overlook a criminal trial involving a former presidential candidate and vice presidential nominee who cheated on his likable wife while she was dying of cancer. But the real impact of this trial is its precedential effect on campaign finance law. And the media have done a decent job of trying to highlight that point. 

Basically, the government is arguing that payments made by Edwards’ friends to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, to keep her story secret amounts to illegal campaign contributions that were not reported.  In order to win, the prosecutors will have to convince a jury – and in all likelihood, an appellate court if they win at trial – that the primary purpose of the payments was to keep Edwards’ political prospects alive rather than to simply keep his wife in the dark about his extracurricular shenanigans. This aggressive stance has sent some chills through the political class, as it could greatly increase the definition of campaign donations to include virtually anything that, while personal in nature, also has a collateral benefit to a candidate’s political viability.  

The other teaching moment here is the choice faced by criminal defendants who truly believe they have done nothing illegal. The media have described Edwards as “rolling the dice” by refusing a plea deal involving minimal jail time and the opportunity to keep his law license in lieu of risking a long prison term if convicted. But what is a defendant supposed to do? Accepting a plea deal means pleading guilty in open court, which is very difficult for those who believe – as Edwards and many independent legal experts do – that no law was broken. The only way, frankly, to prove the prosecution wrong and to avoid a criminal record is to go through with the trial, regardless of the risk. 

But that’s what trials are supposed to do – sort out the facts and apply the law. Along with the salacious stuff that will certainly dominate coverage, let’s hope the media keeps their eyes on that ball as well.   

Posted: 4/23/2012 2:50:44 PM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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