Justice for Some

NEW YORK – The mortgage debacle in the United States has raised deep questions about “the rule of law,” the universally accepted hallmark of an advanced, civilized society. The rule of law is supposed to protect the weak against the strong, and ensure that everyone is treated fairly. In America in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, it has done neither.

Part of the rule of law is security of property rights – if you owe money on your house, for example, the bank can’t simply take it away without following the prescribed legal process. But in recent weeks and months, Americans have seen several instances in which individuals have been dispossessed of their houses even when they have no debts.

To some banks, this is just collateral damage: millions of Americans – in addition to the estimated four million in 2008 and 2009 – still have to be thrown out of their homes. Indeed, the pace of foreclosures would be set to increase – were it not for government intervention. The procedural shortcuts, incomplete documentation, and rampant fraud that accompanied banks’ rush to generate millions of bad loans during the housing bubble has, however, complicated the process of cleaning up the ensuing mess.

To many bankers, these are just details to be overlooked. Most people evicted from their homes have not been paying their mortgages, and, in most cases, those who are throwing them out have rightful claims. But Americans are not supposed to believe in justice on average. We don’t say that most people imprisoned for life committed a crime worthy of that sentence. The US justice system demands more, and we have imposed procedural safeguards to meet these demands.