The Political Risk (If Any) of Breaking The Law

34 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2012

See all articles by Frederick Schauer

Frederick Schauer

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: March 28, 2012


Is breaking the law a politically risky act for politicians and other public officials? The question is especially important in the context of legislators and high executive officials who, for reasons of immunity or otherwise, are not subject to formal legal sanctions when they break the law. In such contexts, we might think that various other repercussions would serve in the place of formal legal sanctions, such that violating the Constitution or the law would entail tangible political, reputational, and social risks. Yet a raft of examples suggests, albeit not definitively, that violating the law qua law is not ordinarily subject to non-legal sanctions. The electorate, the media, and most other potential sources of social and political sanctions reward good policy choices and sanction bad ones, but the very fact of illegality, except possibly by increasing the sanctions for bad policy choices that are also illegal, appears to play at most a small role in constraining the choices of a large group of the most influential and visible American public officials.

Suggested Citation

Schauer, Frederick, The Political Risk (If Any) of Breaking The Law (March 28, 2012). Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2012-24, Available at SSRN:

Frederick Schauer (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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United States
434-924-6777 (Phone)

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