I have no appetite to see John Edwards sent to prison. The former presidential candidate has been exposed and shamed. The old saying, "the process is the punishment," surely applies in his case. Perhaps it was some instinct that that the man had suffered enough that deadlocked the jury in his trial.
But look away from the individual case, and consider the new rule of law effectively established by the jury's refusal to convict. John Edwards raised huge sums of money to buy the silence of his mistress. The government argued that this money should be regarded as a campaign donation subject to disclosure rules. Edwards insisted that neither he nor the donors thought of that money that way - and that because of this private mental reservation, he (and they) broke no law.
If he hadn't been a candidate for president, his friends would not have given him that money. If he hadn't been a candidate, he wouldn't have needed it.
Politicians often have discreditable secrets, secrets that might upset their campaigns. Concealing those secrets can often be integral to their campaign strategy. If money is spent on concealment, what is that money but a campaign expenditure? If a donor gives that money, what else is he (or she) doing but making a campaign contribution?
Had the gifts to Edwards bought yard signs or radio advertising, there'd be no disputing their campaign purpose. Because the money was spent to protect Edwards from sexual embarrassment, the Edwards team argued that the money should be seen as a private and personal gift. But this is perverse! The more intimate and damaging the secret, the more dependent a politician becomes on those who provide the money to hush it up. If John Edwards had gained the presidency, his friend Fred Barron would have been much more than a "friend": he would have held over Edwards' head a perpetual power to plunge him in scandal. Barron, not President Edwards, would have been the most powerful man in Washington, and nobody but Barron and Edwards would have known it.
Had Edwards been convicted, future John Edwards and future Fred Barrons would have been faced a legal rule: secret money for secret political purposes leads to legal trouble.
The Edwards deadlock sets an effective new rule: candidates can raise vast sums of money, undisclosed, outside the campaign finance system, to conceal election-losing secrets without fear of legal consequence. The more intimate and personal the secret is - the more "personal" it becomes - and therefore the more immune to legal scrutiny. This is surely perverse.
We've opened the way to a back-door method of secret influence by wealthy individuals - and done it at a time when wealth is concentrating in this country as it has not concentrated since the 1920s.
I fear we will rue this result and this day.