Emotions are ruining the law

Greenwich-Voices-von-KeyserlingEmotions make bad law. There’s a sound reason why surgeons do not operate on their family or lawyers represent themselves in court. Personal emotions will override good judgment.

Sadly, today it takes a horrendous incident in order for our legislators to create a legal remedy for longstanding need. Notice that today laws are often titled after the name of some victim, not its purpose or its author. There is far too much of this reactionary legislation because, generally, fear drives legislators to act, either fear of the act or fear of the ballot box.

The atmosphere of creation then becomes “them versus us” and “them” has no advocate. Even neutral, objective comment is swept aside in a “fellow traveler” syndrome of condemnation. There is never enough time allowed to think and determine the exact nature of the “threat to society” and, thus, these legal remedies rarely achieve their stated goals. More time is spent on developing clever PR slogans than real solutions and the result is that more innocents are injured than the guilty.

“Feel good legislation” is more about dispatching constituent guilt and fear than protecting potential victims. They shout out, “See, we did something!” We have become a nation of emotional junkies with no tolerance for patient, objective process. Like headache medicine, we want instant relief of the symptoms and then we forget to look for the real and recurrent cause.

The enemy of law is emotion. Facts can be proven, but emotions, like intuition, cannot be established by a third party. These qualities of the human mind are only subjects for opinion. Emotions are irrational, even when they’re understandable. Emotional law can become a close cousin to codified prejudice.

Therefore, law that is written under emotional influence is generally bad law. It rarely accomplishes its goal. Consider, why do the cities with the toughest gun laws have the highest gun crimes?

It often causes more harm to the innocent citizens, who have no reason to hide or feel guilty. Bad law establishes an immutable penalty for the innocent by forcing them through a rigorous defense against all of the power and resources of the state. Many must fold and be sentenced. Even those who prove their innocence are often bankrupted and ruined for life.

Good law created from bad motivation is preferable to bad law created for the best of intentions. At least the innocents are saved. Good law is a set of standards for interaction within a community that allows all people to function with some basic assurity and expectation. These rules must be widely accepted for mutual benefit, or they will fail. They cannot be arbitrary and capricious. There must be a general consensus of that society or the law will fail from either benign neglect or an inability to police an overpowering number of violations, as in the Volstead Act that created Prohibition.

Law should set a standard of relationships and establish a set of consequences for its violation. It should be a clear and defined law so that all may comprehend it. It should not attempt to legislate morality, personal behavior, values or beliefs. All of these areas require subjective evaluation, which will differ widely among the population. There is no safe way to impugn motives, only actions. Therefore, law and its creation must be a coldly rational process.

The remedy for our nation’s rush to legislate is time. Time to simmer down. Time for objective investigation and fact finding. Time to separate the symptoms from the root causes. Time to consider all the collateral impacts. Time to delete overkill.

Our legislators needed to “count to 10” or take a walk until the public and themselves can think clearly. It is ironic that our legislators are notorious for delay and postponement in their normal business. Can they not find procedural grounds to buy the time needed for sound judgment? Do they wish to make good law or only good headlines?


Christopher von Keyserling is a Republican and a longtime member of the town’s Representative Town Meeting, though the opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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