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The 19th Century Case That Transformed the Legal System—And Holds a Lesson for the Trump Trials

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It was the political trial of the century. 

An extremely popular, powerful, and populist politician faced criminal charges for corruption. Lawyers did his bidding and judges served at his pleasure. The rich knew he was for sale and the poor and working classes thought he was fighting for them. His downfall began when he supported a partisan riot, which saw 60 civilians and members of law enforcement killed; it was then that institutions began to fight back.

The politician in question was not Donald Trump. It was William “Boss" Tweed, and his conviction helped transform the American legal system, while providing the foundation that enabled New York City to boom. Today, Trump’s trials pose a similar challenge to the rule of law and American democracy itself. The legal system’s handling of Tweed provides the road map for successfully navigating the situation.

In the middle of the 19th century, a growing immigrant population and the use of patronage as a source of power and a wellspring of voter support enabled politicians like Tweed to rise to prominence. Tweed served one term in Congress in the early 1850s, but he discovered the real action was in city politics.

Tweed’s power came not from holding elected office but rather from his role on the government commissions that controlled the public works meant to serve the booming population. His position gave Tweed nearly unlimited control over government funds, employment, and even elections. One political cartoon had him proclaiming: “‘As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?’”

Read More: Trump Tried to 'Corrupt' 2016 Election, Prosecutor Alleges as Hush-Money Trial Gets Underway

Another cartoon depicted Tweed’s political organization as a tiger wearing the crown of the “republic” mauling a woman representing the “law.” The suggestion was that Tweed was as dangerous and corrupt as he was powerful. For observers at the time, Tweed’s control of judicial appointments — which made it difficult to check his corruption — offered further proof that he used his power to make a mockery of the rule of law.  

And it was a nearly unbreakable cycle. Prospective judges paid Tweed to rig their elections, and then the graft they received while sitting on the bench fueled their re-election efforts. Justice was for sale to the highest bidder, it appeared, and those who could not afford the price often lost out. 

Good-government advocates knew that if a small band of insiders could extract short-term profits from the economy through corruption and cronyism it might prevent New York City from achieving its goal of becoming a truly global city, one that would attract industry and immigrants, and provide a sustainable economy that lifted all boats. Prominent lawyer Samuel Tilden (who would later serve as New York’s governor), argued that it would be impossible for the city to remain as the center of “commerce and capital for this continent,” unless it had “an independent Bar and an honest judiciary.”

Some institutions and activists fought against the status quo. Muckraking journalists from the New York Times worked to expose Tweed’s corruption. The investigation uncovered overwhelming evidence that Tweed was siphoning millions from city tax coffers. Most famously, the Times revealed that Tweed’s allies handed out contracts to his cronies to decorate the “Tweed Courthouse” in all manner of wildly expensive finery, from lavish carpeting to elaborate fireplaces and a large and elegant skylight.

In 1871, the public pressure from the media, good government groups, and the legal profession to prosecute Tweed for corruption and what was then called forgery — that is, falsifying documents — became irresistible. Once he was indicted, some of the nation’s most well-known lawyers lined up both to prosecute and defend him, and the media breathlessly covered the criminal proceedings against him closely.

Recognizing the stakes, the legal system and the media embraced the rule of law, and rejected the corruption that had reigned for decades. The New York Times argued that Tweed’s prosecution offered a chance for New York City to rid itself of corruption, attract business and finance, and show new immigrants that America was a beacon for those fleeing despotism in other parts of the world.

Although Tweed’s first trial ended in a mistrial, prosecutors tried him again, the jury convicted him on multiple counts of corruption, and the political boss was carted off to jail.  His influence had not fully waned, however, and the friends he maintained in high and low places enabled his escape from prison. Tweed absconded to Europe, but, probably because of his notoriety, he was recognized, arrested, and extradited to the U.S. He eventually died in prison in 1878.

Tweed’s conviction transformed the legal system, recommitting it to the rule of law. The removal of corrupt players from the government and the judiciary served as one of the accelerants of economic development that allowed New York to emerge as a modern global city.

Today, the legal system faces a similar challenge as Trump confronts four separate sets of criminal charges, in addition to civil litigation — even as the Republican Party prepares to nominate him again for president.  

Thus far, in both the civil defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll, as well as the criminal hush money trial currently ongoing in New York City, the system has held, just like it did when confronting the Tweed prosecution. Justice Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing the latter trial, recently warned Trump that while he doesn’t want to put the former President in jail for repeatedly violating a gag order, he would to “protect the dignity of the justice system.” Generally speaking, the rule of law seems to be prevailing so far in the preliminary stages of the other three criminal proceedings against Trump, although Judge Aileen Cannon, presiding over the classified documents case, seems amenable to delays that will ensure the case does not go to trial before the November election.

But one crucial institution has sent signals that it may not have learned the lessons of the Tweed trial — the U.S. Supreme Court. First, in Trump v. Anderson, the justices weakened the effectiveness of the Insurrection Clause of the 14th Amendment by finding that states like Colorado could not keep Trump of the general election ballot without action by Congress.

Read More: Supreme Court to Hear Case That Could Undo Capitol Riot Charge Against Hundreds, Including Trump

In the April oral arguments in two other cases, the Supreme Court sent ominous signals. In Fischer v. United States, which doesn’t directly involve Trump, the justices appear poised to defang a federal statute that covers the type of corrupt interference with the results of an election that the former President is accused of committing. This could affect one set of the federal charges against Trump.

In a second case, Trump v. United States, the fourth criminal trial pending against the former president, the justices could embrace some degree of immunity for Presidents against criminal charges, threatening the notion that no one is above the law. During oral argument in that case, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wondered if an incumbent lost “a very close, hotly contested election” and knew potential prosecution was "a real possibility” would it initiate “a cycle that destabilizes the functioning of our country as a democracy?”

Of course, the case before the Court alleges that the former President tried to, in fact, destabilize the functioning of American democracy by preventing the peaceful transition of power. Still, most of the other conservative justices seemed to support some degree of immunity — despite Justice Elena Kagan reminding them that the Founders explicitly chose not to include such protection in the Constitution despite several state constitutions adopted at the time explicitly offering it.

The Court might fall into the trap that the legal system avoided during Tweed’s prosecution over a century ago. It could reject the principle that only neutral justice, and accountability for even the most powerful political figures, can provide the stability necessary for the U.S. to thrive politically and economically — and help it avoid kleptocracy, and even national demise.  

John Adams once famously observed that the U.S. should be a nation of laws and not men, because only that can provide the foundation necessary for a fully functioning democracy. Today, providing evenhanded justice doesn't necessarily mean convicting Trump. But the Supreme Court cannot short circuit this process or provide special protections for Trump. Doing so would ignore the warnings of John Adams and the lesson of the “Boss” Tweed trial.

Ray Brescia is associate dean for research and intellectual life at Albany Law School and the author of Lawyer Nation: The Past, Present, and Future of the American Legal Profession. He is an expert on legal ethics and civil procedure, was the associate director of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, and served as law clerk to the Hon. Constance Baker Motley, former U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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