Ignorance of the Law

is an excuse, if you’re a congressman.

And not only an excuse, but grounds for acquittal.

We’ve all heard it: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Well, in 1978 a federal district court judge ruled that a defendant must be acquitted if he had acted in good faith believing he was not violating any law. Those are the judge’s words, not mine, and the judge’s ruling has not been challenged. It stands as legal precedent. 

The defendant should have been more familiar with the law than most of us commoners; he had already been a congressman for 24 years when he became the subject of the judge’s definitive decision.

In what follows, I am making no judgment or comment on the merits of the case.  The jury acted on the merits.  And all references to the congressman’s race are integral to the newspaper report and the biographical clip that follows it.  I am only quoting the two passages to substantiate that ignorance of the law is an excuse, according to a federal District Court judge, whose ruling has the force of law.

Bangor Daily News Weekend Edition, October 7-8, 1978
DIGGS CASE JURY BEGINS DELIBERATION – Washington (UPI)

A jury Friday began deliberating fraud and false payroll charges against Rep. Charles Diggs Jr., D-Mich., under instructions they must find the black leader acted with specific intent to defraud the government in order to return a guilty verdict.

Congressman Diggs

Judge Oliver Gasch [U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia] instructed the jury of 11 blacks and one white to return separate verdicts on each of the 11 counts of mail fraud and 18 counts of filing false payroll vouchers in an alledged [sic] scheme to inflate salaries of five employees so they would use the excess money to pay Diggs’ official and personal bills.

Gasch said if jurors found Diggs acted in good faith believing he was not violating any law they would have to acquit him even if his actions actually were illegal. [emphasis added]

Prosecutor John Kotelly told the jury in his final argument that Diggs’ testimony that the employees paid his bills voluntarily was “preposterous.” He urged juors [sic] to ignore the civil rights and congressional accomplishments of Diggs in reaching their verdict.

“What kind of integrity does a man have who is living off his employees’ salaries?” Kotelly asked.

He said the evidence was “overwhelming” that Diggs, 56, a congressman for 24 years and founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, intended to defraud the government. “If this were a testimonial dinner, one could applaud Congressman Diggs for his accomplishments,” Kotelly said. “But this is not a testimonial dinner.”

Earlier, Coretta King, wife of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Chicago civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young appeared as character witnesses for Diggs and hailed his record.

In his final arguments, defense attorney David Povich said the words of the character witnesses may have been so compelling as to raise a reasonable doubt about Diggs’ guilt notwithstanding any other evidence.

Povich told the jury that no law prohibited Diggs from allowing his employees to pay his expenses voluntarily out of their salaries although this was contrary to the Ethics Committee’s advisory opinion that was published in July, 1973.

courtesy of the Bangor Daily News and United Press International

[End of BDN report. Note that the photo included with the original newspaper article, which depicted the congressman in a distressed state, has been replaced by a more respectful representation of the man.]

Epilogue

From the African American Registry:

From Detroit, Michigan, Charles Diggs Jr. was the son of an undertaker and respected father in the Motor City area. Young Diggs attended Miller High School, the University of Michigan, Fisk University, and Wayne State University; earning a degree in Mortuary Services in 1946. He joined his father in the family mortuary business, and then won his father’s seat in the Michigan senate in 1951. Early on, Diggs was a strong voice for civil rights.

He attended the Emmett Tills murder trial as an observer and was diligent in awakening the conscience of the national Democratic Party; part of this effort allowed the opening of a second [b]lack-majority voting district in Michigan following the 1960 census. Diggs was the key player in organizing the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). However early in 1978, he faced charges of diverting $60,000 in office operating funds to pay his personal expenses. Though convicted of the charges he still won re-election that year.

Diggs appealed his conviction, was eventually censured by the House, and stripped of his committee memberships; he resigned his seat in 1980 after twenty-five years in Congress. He was sentenced to five years in prison and was released after serving seven months. Afterwards, Diggs opened a funeral home in Maryland and was indirectly involved in politics; he also earned a political science degree from Howard University.

Charles Diggs Jr. died of a stroke in August 1998 and was eulogized warmly by Black colleagues from across the country.

Inasmuch as the Diggs trial resulted in a conviction, the jury did not violate or ignore the judge’s instructions.  They simply did not buy the argument that Diggs acted in good faith believing he was not violating any law.

The point still stands: If Congressman Diggs believed he was not violating any law, then, according to this federal District Court judge in Washington, D.C., his ignorance of the law was the excuse that would have justified his acquittal.  Take this ruling with you when you some day have your day in court.

=David A. Woodbury=

1 thought on “Ignorance of the Law

  1. Pingback: Six Disastrous Assumptions | Albert Jay Nock

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