Goodbye, Aristotle

The US Supreme Court recently accepted a law that defies logic.

We all know that common sense and common law are supposed to be distant relatives. But they are sometimes so distant that a little bit of crossbreeding might just be beneficial for the offspring. That is particularly true when a law is based on a principle that runs counter to the laws of logic as expounded by Aristotle.

Repaying fines etc. after convictions are overturned

A few days ago the US Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case Nelson vs. Colorado. It was a case about the consequences when a criminal conviction is found to be invalid. Must the government in those cases repay any proceeds of the case, i.e. fines, costs, payments towards restitution to victims etc. Under the Exoneration Act of Colorado compensation for time wrongfully served and repayment is only available when there is clear and convincing evidence of innocence.

Is that legal? Or does the statute breach the due process clause of the US constitution?

If the law was a simple dichotomy between criminal and lawful actions then the question would be nice and simple. But lawyers would not be in much demand. And of course it is not so easy, but rather a tortous trichotomy of innocence, damages and punishment. A person may well be in a position where he cannot be punished, but still be liable in torts and consequently should pay restitution to the victim, albeit under another label. Or the person may have been guilty of a lesser crime.

Some of us also fall under the psychological spell that invalidation of the conviction must be enough. It should not necessarily be accompanied by a stroll all the way to the bank laughing. Wrongful convictions do range from intentional perversions of justice to those where the jury misjudged the evidence in good faith, often because the crucial evidence failed to be presented at the original trial.

(This phrase raises a funny question. Juries may not convict unless guilt has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. But if the conviction eventually turns out to have been wrong, then by definition either the jury cannot have had any doubts at all, which is rather unlikely, or whatever doubts one or more of the jurors may have had, was a reasonable doubt,  in which case they should have returned a verdict of not guilty. And can you be said to be in good faith under those circumstances?)

The court decided overwhelmingly that Colorado set the bar too high as far as the money was concerned and returned the case to the lower courts for reconsidering. And that was all the Supreme Court could do. I too would have concurred in the conclusions though based on the arguments in a dissent by Alito.

So what is it about Aristotle?

The funny thing nobody mentioned was that you cannot prove a negative fact. A law stating that somebody must prove innocence is a fallacy. It simply cannot be done. That is the foundation of the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof. And we have known that since Aristotle told us so.

But nobody suggested that the Colorado statute requiring proof of innocence ran counter to due process for that reason. Indeed the court accepted that this is an acceptable standard for determining whether a person should be entitled to compensation for time served in jail under a wrongful conviction.

No legal system is the envy of the world. All have their weaknesses, often stemming from traditions that no one considers questionable. And that is the fascination of comparative law.