Lesson from Olmert appeal: We are not all created equal

Analysis: The fallacy that there is “one law for all citizens” is easily exposed as untrue.

July 3, 2013 01:27
2 minute read.
Ehud Olmert after verdict.

Ehud Olmert after verdict 370. (photo credit: Gali Tibbon/Reuters)

One lesson the public has learned from the Jerusalem corruption case against former prime minister Ehud Olmert, is that we are not all equal before the law.

The fallacy that there is “one law for all citizens” is easily exposed as untrue from a quick survey of the courtroom at the Supreme Court in the state’s appeal of Olmert’s overall acquittals.

Putting aside the huge media presence, including four journalists from a single media outlet, the composition of Supreme Court justices is highly unusual.

Typically, an appeal to the Supreme Court on a criminal offense may only have one justice ruling, sometimes three.

Here there are five. Why? Obviously because Olmert is not a regular citizen, but a former prime minister.

If he is going to get a special number of justices hearing the case – why not the maximum of nine? Part of the answer could relate to the fact that nine justices only preside over cases with overriding constitutional considerations, whereas this case – while second to none politically – may not have constitutional implications.

But part of the answer may be due to the fact that five justices had to disqualify themselves because of close relationships with Olmert.

How many normal citizens have close relationships with five justices? The idea that Olmert would get special treatment was unequivocally true, at least since the Jerusalem District Court’s sentencing decision – in which it said it would give Olmert a much more lenient sentence because he had been dethroned as prime minister by the case. (He was not convicted of the specific allegations which led to him stepping down, only of a later arising allegation.) Is it wrong for Olmert to get special treatment? The answer probably depends on what the nature of the special treatment is and what the crime is.

Many would praise the idea that there are more justices involved and that many justices will disqualify themselves, seeing them as taking the issue of a former high state official seriously and following proper procedure.

Many would say the same regarding a sentence for financial crimes: namely, that for non-violent crimes and even less serious financial ones (compared to more serious crimes like bribery, for example), taking into consideration a person’s service to the state in any position, let alone as prime minister, makes sense.

Others might say the opposite: Examples should be made of public servants and they should get maximum punishments, to send a clear message to the public that no one is above the law.

Where there is probably little debate is regarding the verdict. It would be hard to find serious commentators who would go against the idea that facts are facts, the truth is the truth and that someone’s public position should change a finding of guilty to innocent or viceversa.

Then again, the debate in the US to about whether the 5-4 US Supreme Court vote that handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000 was influenced by ideology – and the politics in the balance go unresolved to this day.

Thus, not only the Supreme Court ruling, but how well it grounds it and how carefully it chooses its words will determine how fairly its decision about Olmert’s fate will be perceived.

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