I admit to not having a precise and snappy definition of "equality before the law" in the sense in which I think equality before the law a good thing. For example, it seems to me legitimate that a child should receive a lesser sentence for some actions than an adult.
But I have a rough and ready notion of what is not equality before the law and what is, on those grounds, unjust. If I commit a crime and the evidence is excellent, but my cousin is a good friend of the judge, and if I get off with a light sentence because of that friendship, that is not equality before the law. If I commit vandalism and the police refuse to prosecute because I come from an influential family, that is not equality before the law.
Now most of us, myself included, would like to believe that this sort of equality before the law is part of what the American legal system is all about. We don't have aristocratic titles in America, and our ideal, our goal, is that people who commit crimes for which there is good evidence will be prosecuted regardless of their parentage, their profession, or their "pull" by way of friendship with people in high places.
The reality is rather different from the ideal. Reality usually is. And this seems to me to be a rather egregious example of inequality before the law. Or would have been, were it not for the blogosphere.
The brief version is that a Marine, about to embark for Iraq, came out of a house he was visiting in Chicago early in December to find a man rubbing his hand along the Marine's car. Upon immediate inspection, the owner found that the car had been scratched by a key on multiple sides. He confronted the alleged perpetrator, who proceeded to cuss him out roundly for being military personnel. (The car had military plates.) Instead of whacking the guy, Marine Sgt. McNulty called the cops and pressed charges. Once it was discovered that the damage was approximately $2400 worth, it became evident that this level of damage warranted felony charges, being over $300. The alleged perpetrator, a Chicago lawyer named Jay Grodner, rather insultingly offered to pay the victim's $100 deductible; the rest could be billed to his insurance. When Sgt. McNulty turned down this offer and pointed out that the charge should be a felony, the Illinois State attorneys instead pressured him to accept the $100 and to drop the attempt to file felony charges, on the grounds that Grodner is a lawyer. They said they "didn't have the time" to pursue felony charges and that it would be difficult to recover damages against Grodner because he is a lawyer. Only after the story hit the blogosphere and sent some negative publicity their way did the State's Attorney's office take a different tack. It now appears that Lawyer Grodner might even be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Whether Sgt. McNulty (who is now back in Iraq) will get his full damages paid by the one person who ought to pay them is a different question.
Now, I understand that there needs to be prosecutorial discretion. Sometimes there is not enough evidence to convict, and the police and state attorneys have to be able to make those kinds of judgement calls. But in this case, the matter was fairly obvious. Grodner was all but admitting fault by his offer to pay the deductible. There was no other alleged perpetrator anywhere around. McNulty appears to have caught the guy in the act. It should be an open and shut case. But the state's representatives hesitated because they did not think it would be worth their time to try to prosecute a lawyer to the full extent of the law. It's our own little American version of the benefit of clergy. Perhaps he should have claimed "benefit of lawyer-hood" and asked to be tried in a special court set aside for lawyers where they are tried only by their fellow lawyers.