The American Way - A culture that allows lawbreaking

Charles Kramer, The Levison Group

With the recent “legalization” of marijuana use in several states, most discussion has centered on the taxes that will be raised, the health issues, and whether it’s a morally good idea. Strangely, nobody seems to be focusing on the fact that state government is literally giving the proverbial finger to federal law. States that actively allow and tax the illegal plant, are breaking the law. Why does nobody care? Perhaps its because our nation was originally populated, in large part, by criminals or those with a “hardy spirit” who were willing to risk their lives to cross the ocean and that, as a result, the American culture includes a willingness to tolerate, and even encourage, some degree of minor lawbreaking. It’s not only marijuana laws that reflect this intrinsic characteristic. Prosecutors often will not prosecute known “crimes,” when they arise in a business setting and are also addressable through civil methods (“This is really a business dispute, sir...”). Good Americans jay walk, or trespass to get places quicker, and traffic speed limits are often set eight miles per hour below the speed actually believed to be the maximum safe speed, due to the knowledge that most drivers will drive up to eight miles an hour over the posted limit. Littering is not REALLY a crime, and keeping the second bag of potato chips that falls from the machine is simply good luck. Breaking the rules of the playground or in sports is accepted, and finding ways around laws is seen as creative and genious.

 Even our celebrities, literati, and politicians publically acknowledge our “tendencies.” Mae West reportedly claimed that it was perfectly fine to crack a few laws now and then. Ralph Waldo Emerson waxed poetically that good men must not obey the laws “too much.” Richard Nixon famously declared that when the president does something, it is not illegal. Joe Orton noted that “ we live in the age of equality, because all classes are now criminal.”

So, as lawyers charged with protecting and implementing our system of laws and justice, should we be doing something about this? Is there some moral imperative to attempt to change this apparently prevalent American view? Or, conversely, are we ourselves allowed to follow in the footsteps of those that have come before?

A recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Behavioral Science revealed that 87% of an 18,000 person study sample, believed that lawyers should NOT break the laws they are entrusted with enforcing. The same study found that 79% of the participants felt that it was fine for lawyers to argue for a change in the law, or to argue why a law did not apply to their client’s circumstance if they had a reasonable basis and belief in their argument, but 93 percent found it “wrong” for an advocate to advance even a reasonable position if he or she did not themselves believe it to be the correct one.

However, in the final analysis, it turns out that there is no Journal of the International Society of Behavioral Science and no such study was ever performed or reported. I needed an authoritative way to end this column, so thought I’d just create the stats I needed.

Doing so put no one’s live at risk, and did not run any risk of toppling our governmental structure, yet somehow it seems worse than speeding or the Colorado marijuana laws, doesn’t it?


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Charles Kramer is a principal of the St. Louis, Missouri law firm Riezman, Berger, P.C. You may direct comments or criticisms about this column to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper, or direct to the Levison Group via e-mail, at
© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.


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