Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Friday, May 31, 2024

Trump Guilty Verdict Shows Wealthy and Powerful Can Be Held to Account

But it’s just the beginning

AARON REGUNBERG in Common Dreams

For weeks, the nation has watched, transfixed, as Donald Trump stood trial in the first-ever criminal prosecution of a former president. This is not the first time Trump has been the defendant in a major trial, and in many ways the potential consequences of this criminal case pale in comparison to Trump’s business fraud case and E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit, which together exceed half a billion dollars in civil judgments.

But the significance of Trump’s criminal conviction at the hands of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg seems to dwarf Trump’s other legal entanglements.

That’s because criminal law plays a unique role, not just in our legal system, but in society at large. It is how the state takes action to protect citizens from harm, promote public safety, and hold wrongdoers accountable. It’s also how we illustrate what’s right and wrong and publicly mark that certain acts are simply not acceptable—that they are condemned by the community at large.

Of course, we all know who is most likely to be on the receiving end of that condemnation. Most prosecutorial offices spend the vast majority of their resources prosecuting street-level crimes and low level offenders who are disproportionately likely to be people of color, suffer from substance use disorders or mental health problems, and live in poverty.

Because of these inequities, progressives are generally distrustful of the criminal justice system, and the “progressive prosecutor” movement that has emerged in recent years—and that is currently facing backlash in some parts of the country—has primarily focused its agenda on prosecuting less: bringing fewer charges, seeking lower sentences, working towards decreased incarceration.

These are critically important priorities. But District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s successful prosecution of Donald Trump highlights that being a “progressive prosecutor” isn’t just about prosecuting less.

Rather, it can—and should—also be about using the power of the criminal justice system to protect our communities from all who would do them harm, particularly the rich and well-connected whose wealth so often allows them to escape accountability for the harms they commit, regardless of how severely they threaten public safety or welfare.

The truth is that criminal prosecution has a great track record of forcing powerful actors to stop endangering others, even when all other methods have failed. Take, for example, the prosecution of the poultry rendering company Central Industries, which committed over one thousand environmental violations over the course of multiple years, despite repeated civil penalties, until it was at last criminally prosecuted and made to pay criminal restitution.

Or look at McWane, Inc., a pipe manufacturing company that continued committing dangerous worker safety violations, regardless of the civil penalties it incurred, until it was criminally convicted and forced to make major investments in worker protections.

Indeed, several district attorneys and state attorneys general have begun prioritizing prosecutions against employers for wage theft, misclassification, payroll fraud, and other crimes against workers. Some offices have even created dedicated units to lead this work.

Another idea that has begun attracting attention among a growing number of criminal law professors, former prosecutors and legal advocates is the prosecution of Big Oil companies for climate-related harms.

Advocates for this approach have argued that major fossil fuel companies should be charged with reckless homicide for causing climate-related deaths, reckless endangerment for contributing to extreme weather events, criminal destruction of property for climate losses, and fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering for spreading climate disinformation.

Given that these companies are responsible both for knowingly generating a substantial portion of all the greenhouse gas emissions that have caused the planet to heat up and deceiving the public about the dangers of their fossil fuel products so they could continue to generate those emissions, a strong case exists for investigating whether Big Oil should be held criminally accountable for climate disasters.

Ideas like these provide a template for how district attorneys across the country could redefine public safety to include not just the protection of communities from street crime but also from the more systemic—and often far, far more harmful—crimes of wealthy and powerful corporations.

That’s not to suggest that prosecuting massive companies for economic or climate-related crimes would be easy. But the same could be said about prosecuting a former president. As we’ve seen with Trump’s criminal conviction this week, it’s possible to take such challenges on, rather than surrendering to them. And doing so can have a big effect.

Nobody should be above the law. In furtherance of this principle, local prosecutors in Manhattan have successfully prosecuted one of the most powerful men in the world. It’s time for their counterparts in districts across the country to begin considering how they, too, can stand up to the powerful actors endangering their communities.

AARON REGUNBERG is a former state legislator and a long-time progressive organizer. His writing can be found at The New Republic, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Balls and Strikes, Dissent Magazine, Ecology Law Quarterly, and Harvard Environmental Law Review.