Why is Honduras so much poorer than the U.S. and even most of its Latin American neighbors? I posed that question to a friend who is originally from Honduras and is now a U.S. citizen. She immediately replied, “The judiciary.” (Note: Honduras is a beautiful Central American country, sitting on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, with many natural resources and pleasant microclimates, and it has been independent of Spain for two centuries. It should be a garden paradise.)

What it has lacked is a consistent rule of law where all are treated equally and fairly. The U.S. was blessed to inherit the English common law (developed over many centuries) with its corresponding high standards of required conduct. Under the common law, both privileges and penalties are supposed to be dispensed equally regardless of status. It is conduct that is being regulated, not the individual. Bills of attainder — targeting specific people or groups — are prohibited by the Constitution.

Former President Donald Trump evokes much passion among supporters and enemies for some of his statements and alleged actions (for things that may or may not be illegal). New York Attorney General Letitia James ran on a platform to “get Trump.” She had identified the person but not the crime. Once elected, she tried to find a crime — eventually coming up with an obscure statute that had not been applied to anyone else — and arranged a conviction (without a jury and no victim) with a fellow co-conspirator, Judge Arthur Engoron. Such antics are normally found in communist countries or Third World dictatorships. The attorney general’s behavior violated “standards” of what is commonly understood as proper behavior by prosecutors.

Colorado has many Trump haters, apparently including a majority of the state Supreme Court. This court thought it was OK to deny Mr. Trump ballot access because he, in their judgment, had engaged in an “insurrection” on Jan. 6. The fact that the feds never indicted him, let alone convicted him, of such a charge was conveniently ignored. So much for the rule of law. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court fortunately ruled against the state, 9-0.

One of the hallmarks of English common law was the goal of keeping the courts and judiciary out of the political fray. This is a never-ending struggle, and it is difficult to write and enforce rules of conduct. So, the system largely depends on appointing honorable people (in British parlance: “fit and proper” people) who have high standards and intuitively know where to draw the line.

One outstanding example of a “fit and proper” person with unquestionably high standards was Elliot Richardson (1920-1999), one of only two people in American history to serve in four Cabinet offices, including attorney general. Richardson had such a towering reputation for intelligence, competence and good judgment that he was easily confirmed to all his various government positions. Well known for his high standards, he demonstrated that there were lines he would not cross — when he resigned as attorney general rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox as President Richard Nixon had ordered him to do.

It was my good fortune to have known Elliot Richardson in his later years. He was an ardent foe of corruption in government. Unfortunately, he did not serve as AG long enough to fully clean out the FBI and the Justice Department. He had tried to persuade Nixon to turn over all of the subpoenaed material and some that Cox and his staff had requested. Nixon’s stonewalling proved not to serve him well.

It is fair to speculate that Elliot Richardson would not approve of the way Merrick Garland is running the Justice Department. Mr. Garland and President Biden are making the same mistake Nixon made by not complying with Congress’ legitimate document requests. (You can bet that they will eventually be made public by court order or through leaks.) Richardson would certainly not have approved the weaponization of the Justice Department for political purposes.

After his government service, Richardson returned to his law practice. He took on the infamous Inslaw case, where a private software developer claimed that the Justice Department stole its major software product rather than provide full payment for the contract. Richardson was outraged at what he considered deplorable behavior by Justice. The case involves many alleged conspiracies that have yet to be solved decades later. Richardson burned many bridges with old friends and colleagues by taking on the case — but his sense of duty and high standards kept him on it until his death.

Many advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion programs fail to understand that lowering standards or forcing career choices that do not make the best use of everyone’s talents makes the problem worse. A prospective employer interviewing a woman of color and recent Harvard graduate will almost certainly wonder if this person is exceptional or a product of affirmative action. The mere thought diminishes the value of all Harvard degrees and the institution itself.

When Major League Baseball dropped its color barrier and hired Jackie Robinson, every Black kid in America immediately realized that color no longer mattered. If one meets the high-performance standard required in major league ball, he can have wealth and fame.

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.


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