Unequal Justice?

There it was, emblazoned across the front page of the Washington Post, a headline made especially disturbing by its publication on July 4:

Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

What did it mean, I wondered. Poor parents go to jail, rich parents walk? The law is enforced in black neighborhoods, winked at in white suburbs?

Not exactly. In fact, the Post reported,

In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

So it’s not a story about unequal justice, just about different jurisdictions with different laws. But the Post sees it differently:

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties.

“Inconsistency.” “Patchwork.” “Conflicting legal practices.” This is ridiculous. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. On the Fourth of July, let’s pause to remember: The United States is a federal republic, not a unitary centralized state. Different states and even different cities and counties have different laws.

One of the benefits of a decentralized republic is that laws can reflect people’s different values and attitudes. Decentralism also allows states and counties to be “laboratories of democracy.” If voters in Maryland and the District of Columbia read about how Virginia sentences parents to 27 months in jail for serving alcohol to teenagers after taking away their car keys — and they think that sounds like a good idea — then they can change their own laws. Or if Virginia voters notice that Maryland has a slightly lower highway fatality rate, then they might decide to change their laws.

States in our federal republic have different laws about lots of things, certainly including alcohol since the repeal of national Prohibition. I grew up in a dry county in Kentucky — no legal sales of alcohol of any kind — but neighboring counties were wet. The old joke was that Bourbon County was dry while Christian County was wet, but that seems not to be true any more. First cousins can marry in some states but not in others. The rules used to vary on interracial marriage until the Supreme Court stepped in and banned laws against it. In the past couple of years we have begun to experience different state laws on same-sex marriage.

Some people seem to want all laws to be uniform across this vast nation, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf stream waters, from sea to shining sea. They use their power in Congress to impose national speed limits, national environmental rules, national school testing laws, national marijuana bans, and so on. But the beauty of America is that we have resisted many of those pressures, and there are still real differences in the laws of San Francisco and San Antonio; Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas; Wyoming and Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.

The laws are even different in Virginia and nearby Maryland. That does not mean that justice is unequal.