- - Thursday, April 15, 2021

Is Matt Gaetz guilty of sex trafficking? Did Hunter Biden commit a felony? These are surprisingly difficult questions to answer because neither has gone to trial.

Neither Mr. Gaetz nor Mr. Biden has even been charged yet. But many in America are already making up their minds about them. The court of public opinion moves faster than ever, but it begs the question of whether this new justice system is getting it right. 

If Mr. Gaetz is guilty of sex trafficking, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The allegations against him are pretty serious, so they should be taken seriously. But what exactly does it mean to take something seriously? One way is to be respectful of those who may have gone through traumatic experiences, such as sex trafficking. 

However, the other part of what it means to take an accusation seriously is to treat the matter with caution. Jumping to conclusions may harm the defendant, yes — but it also degrades the accuser by implying their case can be judged lightly. 

Take the court case where an elderly lady was awarded damages because the coffee she spilt on herself was too hot. Many scoffed at the absurdity of winning a $3 million lawsuit for hot coffee. “Seinfeld” even made an episode mocking the case. But the facts show the court of public opinion got it wrong. The accuser had third-degree burns that put her in the hospital for seven days — meaning the coffee was indeed far too hot. Furthermore, she didn’t win $3 million; she was awarded $600,000. 

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants shows that both the accuser and the defendant benefit when we carefully consider cases.

In the case of Mr. Gaetz, it’s certainly possible that the allegations against him are true. Mr. Gaetz denies them and says they are part “an organized criminal extortion.” It is also possible that Hunter Biden committed a felony by illegally obtaining a firearm. Before we clamor for Mr. Gaetz’s resignation or for Mr. Biden to go to jail, we should wait for a full investigation and for the evidence to be shown.

We show respect to both people involved by granting them a “day in court.” In the court of public opinion, though, a “day” is about as long as it takes to type 280 characters. 

The Gaetz case is symbolic of a broader problem in the American judicial system. Sometimes, if no charges are filed, we are left with unproven testimony on either side. But, more often than not, we make decisions about whether someone is guilty or not before an investigation is finished. This poses a problem for those who believe in a judicious culture of “innocent until proven guilty.” But aren’t we all supposed to believe in that?

The presumption of innocence is a hallmark of Western legal traditions. Even so, it isn’t just about what happens inside the courtroom. It’s a cultural value that maintains that allowing a few despicable, unruly and even criminal people to go free is worth it because the alternative is intolerable. Take the culture of McCarthyism. McCarthyism presumed people had communist sympathies and while some people were blacklisted, others went to prison because of it. 

“Innocent until proven guilty” makes a much better claim: Allowing some communists to spread their message allows the rest of us to live without fear. 

Each time the court of public opinion reaches a verdict without a judge, jury or the evidence, we nudge ourselves closer to a new version of that old McCarthyism. But the real story is that McCarthyism wasn’t even very effective! Sen. Joe McCarthy named 159 people as communists between 1950 and 1952. Only about 10 were actually Soviet spies. 

The same goes for everyday people. Research shows that we aren’t very good at forming new opinions about controversial news topics. We often make facts into narratives instead of making narratives fit facts. It’s why the court of public opinion often divides along party lines. And we’re not the better for it.

We also simply don’t have the time to investigate every “bombshell” news bulletin. Going through the evidence takes a lot of time. It’s why jury duty is a mandatory obligation that takes days and days to fulfill. 

We should expect transparent investigations to find the evidence against Matt Gaetz and Hunter Biden. Waiting to draw a conclusion isn’t the same thing as “doing nothing.” It is an active stance that holds the judicial system up to a high standard. It also acknowledges the seriousness of these accusations and treats everyone involved with respect. 

The court of public opinion is taking on too many cases, and the verdicts look suspiciously partisan. Perhaps instead of increasing the rate of decisions, it’s time for the court to take a recess. 

• Sean-Michael Pigeon is a contributor to Young Voices and a senior at Yale University, where he studies political science. 

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