weather icon Clear

EDITORIAL: Boom in federal crimes undermines the rule of law

Nancy Pelosi famously remarked that Democrats would have to pass ObamaCare in order “to find out what’s in it.” The dirty little secret inside the Beltway is that her comment is true about all manner of congressional legislation.

The Wall Street Journal noted last week that the Heritage Foundation and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University have teamed up in an effort to count the number of federal crimes in the U.S. Code. Seems that nobody has any idea how many acts Congress has criminalized over the years.

To make matters worse, the list of offenses is so expansive and diverse that the authorities have plenty of pretense to arrest anyone at any time. Yale Law professor Stephen Carter estimated in 2014 that 70 percent of Americans “have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment.” Yet there “is no single place where any citizen can go to learn” what is illegal under federal law, a Heritage report concluded. Some federal laws are so impenetrable that “no reasonable person could understand what they mean.”

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. “In our own time and place,” Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a recent dissenting opinion, “criminal laws have grown so exuberantly and come to cover so much previously innocent conduct that almost anyone can be arrested for something.”

The Heritage-Mercatus project looked back more than 25 years and determined there were “about 36 percent more criminal sections in 2019” than in 1994, the Journal reported. It’s worth noting that the study doesn’t include the 175,000-page Code of Federal Regulations, which includes thousands of offenses that can result in jail time.

“With so many different laws on the books,” Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, wrote for The Hill in 2019, “clever and determined prosecutors can threaten decades in prison for acts that may amount to simple bad judgment.” Indeed, given that the Supreme Court has sanctioned the erosion of constitutional protections against double jeopardy, the expansion of the federal code — which often overlaps with state laws — makes it more likely that defendants may be charged twice with the same crime.

“Ultimately, the best solution is to cut back on the scope and complexity of law,” wrote Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Washington University, “though I fear we may not have the political will to do it.”

Criminal justice reform is a hot topic. Perhaps Democrats and Republicans could find middle ground on that issue in a proposal to reduce the number of duplicative and overly broad federal crimes on the books while vowing a freeze on the creation of ever-more offenses.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
LETTER: Books in the children’s section; sexualization and grooming

Editor’s note: This complaint was originally emailed to Pahrump library trustee John Shewalter on Sept. 27, 2022. It is being republished after library trustees voted 5-0 Monday to craft a review system of “questionable” materials in the youth library that’s likely to include a number of LGBTQ-affirming titles. The writer of the complaint is unknown. Trustees redacted the name and email address of its sender before circulating a printed copy of the complaint at a public meeting this week.

COMMENTARY: Donald Trump gets just what he wanted

Does anyone really want to be indicted? Maybe if your name is Donald Trump, and you’re facing four investigations, three of them for serious abuse of presidential powers and one for using a lousy fix-it lawyer who paid hush money to an alleged mistress, writes columnist Susan Estrich.

TALK OF THE TOWN: Pahrump is hungry for new restaurants & business

Pahrump is hungry for new restaurants and other businesses. That’s evident by the long lines that snaked around the new Arby’s that opened along the frontage road of Highway 160 on Tuesday. Here’s what PV Times readers are saying about our most-read story of the week.

TALK OF THE TOWN: Pahrump ‘fired up’ after claims from firefighters unions

PVT readers share their thoughts about a 56-point list of health, safety and mismanagement concerns co-written by members of the local firefighters union that called for Pahrump Fire Rescue Chief Scott Lewis to step down — or face removal from his position.