When Legal Authority Goes Wrong: Examples and Lessons Learned

The legal system is designed to ensure justice is served and to protect the rights of individuals. However, when legal authority is not exercised properly, it can have dire consequences. This is particularly concerning when it happens in situations of power and authority over vulnerable populations, such as children, minorities, or those with mental or physical disabilities. Listed here are examples of when legal authority goes wrong and the lessons learned from each experience.

1. The Flint Water Crisis

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. This decision was made primarily to save money, but it resulted in exposing the residents of Flint to lead-contaminated water. The state knew about the contamination but failed to take any action for over a year. In total, over 100,000 residents were exposed to toxic water in a case that lasted for several years.

Lesson learned: The government and its officials have a duty to protect their citizens. In cases where public safety is at risk, immediate action should be taken to prevent harm. In the case of Flint, the government failed to act promptly and caused significant harm to the residents.

2. The Forced Sterilization of Women of Color in the United States

Between 1909 and 1979, thousands of women of color in the United States were forcibly sterilized under the eugenics movement. This practice targeted women who were deemed “feeble-minded” or “promiscuous” and was intended to prevent them from having children who would be considered inferior. This process was done without the consent of the women and was often carried out during other medical procedures, such as childbirth.

Lesson learned: The abuse of power by those in authority to exert control over vulnerable populations is unacceptable. Racial and gender discrimination should never be used to justify inhumane treatments and practices.

3. The Salem Witch Trials

In the late 1600s, the Salem Witch Trials took place in Massachusetts. This event resulted in the execution of 20 people who were accused of witchcraft. The legal system at the time allowed for the prosecution of supposed witches based on hearsay and false evidence, without any fair trial or reasonable defense.

Lesson learned: Legal authority must be balanced with the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Without such protections, innocent people may be accused and punished without due process.

4. The Japanese American Internment

In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government ordered the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps across the United States. This decision was based on the executive order signed by President Roosevelt, which marked the Japanese Americans as a national security threat. The decision was based on racism, xenophobia, and fear, without any evidence proving that Japanese Americans posed any danger.

Lesson learned: The violation of the civil rights of any group of people based on race, religion, or nationality is unacceptable. In a country that prides itself on freedom and equality, such decisions based on unfounded claims of national security are a violation of the principles of freedom and democracy.

In conclusion, when legal authority goes wrong, it can have severe, far-reaching consequences. The above examples demonstrate the importance of keeping power in check, protecting basic human rights, and following the principles of fairness and justice. We must continue to hold those in power accountable, ensure access to justice for all, and work towards a more equitable, humane society.