Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Difference Between Right and Legal.

One of the first things you learn in law school is the difference between law and morality.

I’ll pause for a moment as you fill in your own punch-line.

The simple point is, things aren’t necessarily right because they’re legal and they’re not necessarily wrong because they’re illegal. The second of those two statement is the more complicated one, and doesn’t really concern us today. We’ll stick to the first concept.

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it right.

This comes up in part because of my recent comments about the Social Security scam that is being used to promote domestic partner/civil union legislation in Illinois. A similar arrangement is already law in California. The argument has been made, and acknowledged by me, that if the practice is legal, as it apparently is, then there should be no stigma attached to people taking advantage of it.

Maybe, but that doesn’t make it right.

If this concept still seems a bit hazy, here are some other illustrations, all helpfully provided by that same cast of characters.

One of the advocates for the civil unions scheme is my State Senator, Heather Steans. Ms. Steans got her job through some shenanigans involving the carefully-timed resignation of her predecessor, Carol Ronen. Though dubious ethically, it was all legal.

In the Senate, Ronen was Governor Rod Blagojevich's floor leader. Earlier this year, he hired her as a $120,000-a-year senior advisor. She resigned eight weeks later, ostensibly to volunteer in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, although that organization has yet to acknowledge her presence.

In doing all this, Ronen “earned” a state pension whose amount is based on her final salary, so her yearly pension (Ronen is 63-years-old) will be $102,000. That is $38,000 more than she would have gotten as a retired senator. Her old salary as a senator was $75,000 a year. How many hard-working Americans get to retire on a pension that is higher than their salary?

In the military, it is customary for lifers to get one last promotion just before they retire, so their pension will be figured at the higher pay grade. The difference is that everyone there is treated the same. Everyone gets the extra bump before they retire. What Ronen got was a special reward for a loyal insider, available to only a select few. That's the sin of the thing.

Governor Blagojevich, who because he says nothing with a straight face can effectively say anything with one, claims he didn’t know about Ronen's scam (there’s that word again) until he read about it in the newspapers.

Pension scammers like Ronen are entitled to say they haven’t done anything illegal, but I contend they can’t say they haven’t done anything wrong. Here is how one state legislator characterized this pension enhancement practice: "It's an outrage. It's not the way people expect government to run. It's not the way government should run." Who said that? Senator Carol Ronen, in 2003, when the outgoing Republican administration was pulling the same stunt. She predicted that the incoming Blagojevich administration would set a higher standard.

Is the practice actually legal? Quite possibly not, technically, but it is effectively legal since there is no way to prove the conspiracy to defraud that would be necessary to call it illegal. That it is wrong should be clear to anyone with even a passably-functioning moral compass, but those are pretty rare in Springfield.

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