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Ignorance of the law is no excuse

So I watched part of Thursday's Democratic debate in New Hampshire. As usual, it was filled with political pablum and pointless platitudes, as candidates struggled to dodge questions in their one (!) minute allotted response times. And it was filled with idiot questions from idiot media panelists, asking all sorts of horse-race related questions which nobody on earth cares about.

But one exchange during the debate, between moderator Peter Jennings and Senator John Edwards, struck me:

JENNINGS: OK, thank you, sir.

Senator Edwards, President Bush, as you know, is worried. He said it again in the State of the Union address the other night that the Defense of Marriage Act is not strong enough, as he says, to protect the institution of marriage.

You were not in the Senate in 1996 when it passed overwhelmingly.

JENNINGS: Senator Kerry was one of only 14 senators who voted against it. I'd like to know from you whether or not you think he was right or wrong, and why?

EDWARDS: I think he was right. I think he was right because what happened with the Defense of Marriage Act is it took away the power of states, like Vermont, to be able to do what they chose to do about civil unions, about these kinds of marriage issues.

These are issues that should be left -- Massachusetts, for example, has just made a decision, the supreme court at least has made a decision, that embraces the notion of gay marriage.

I think these are decisions that the states should have the power to make. And the Defense of Marriage Act, as I understand it -- you're right, I wasn't there when it was passed -- but as I understand it, it would have taken away that power. And I think that's wrong. That power should not be taken away from the states.

JENNINGS: Do you believe that other states, for example, should be obliged to honor and recognize the civil union which Governor Dean signed? Should other states be obliged to recognize what happens in another state?

EDWARDS: I think it's a decision that should be made on a state- by-state basis. I think each state should be able to make its own decision about what they embrace.


HUME: I just want to follow up with on the Defense of Marriage Act, which of course is the law of the land.


HUME: Does not the Defense of Marriage Act specifically say that the court rulings in one state, which might, for example, recognize a gay marriage, may not be imposed on anther state? In other words, doesn't the Defense of Marriage go to the very position which you yourself take?

EDWARDS: No, the Defense of Marriage -- first of all, I wasn't in the Congress, I don't claim to be an expert on this. But as I understand the Defense of Marriage Act, it would take away the power of some states to choose whether they would recognize or not recognize gay marriages. That's my understanding of it.

In case you don't catch what I'm talking about, it's simple: Senator Edwards has no idea what the Defense of Marriage Act is. He gets the answer completely wrong, thinking the law says the opposite of what it actually says. The Defense of Marriage Act -- whatever one thinks of its merits -- is designed specifically to leave it up to each state whether to legalize gay marriages and whether and how to recognize gay marriages from other states.

Edwards pathetically tries to wiggle out of his ignorance by pointing out that he wasn't serving in the Senate when it passed, and that he "doesn't claim to be an expert." But Edwards is a lawyer! No, he doesn't practice an area of law related to this -- but shouldn't he have some basic familiarity with one of the more prominent laws passed by Congress on a prominent political issue? My practice doesn't have deal in any way with any related area of law -- and needless to say, I also wasn't a member of Congress when it passed -- but I sure as heck know what the law says.

Brit Hume gives Edwards a chance to pull his foot from his mouth, and yet Edwards repeats the error. Now, if George Bush showed total unfamiliarity with a prominent piece of legislation, he would be called both a liar and a moron. How do you think the media will choose to characterize Edwards? (My guess: his error will be briefly mentioned, with no insinuations that it tells us something abouut Edwards' fitness, and will then be dropped entirely.)


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Comments (1)

I won't defend Edwards, but it seems pretty obvious that only a constitutional amendment could change the course of history (given what's happening in Vermont and Massachusetts).

Article IV

Section 1. Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.


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