Blogging at Forbes, Reason contributor Harvey Silverglate criticizes the federal indictment of former North Carolina senator John Edwards, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004:

Edwards violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, the government alleges, by encouraging two wealthy supporters to fork over more than $900,000 that was used to cover up his affair with a campaign aide who bore him a child.

The charge is, in essence, that Edwards violated the Seventh Commandment...It is dressed up, however, in the language of one of those many federal criminal statutes that are vague enough to cover a vast swath of human conduct—some innocuous, some distasteful. But when going by the letter of the law, no reasonable person would conclude that a federal crime had been committed.

The indictment portrays the $900,000, which Edwards used to pay for his mistress's travel, medical, and living expenses, as illegal campaign contributions. That definition, in turn, hinges on the judgment that Edwards covered up the affair and the resulting baby not to keep the truth from his wife and children but to protect his presidential prospects:

The indictment frames Edwards' wife and kids as being of zero concern in comparison to his political career. Perhaps his motives were mixed. But for prosecutors to say that "beyond a reasonable doubt" the candidate lied and engaged in the coverup for political rather than personal reasons assumes an insight that neither federal prosecutors, nor anyone else for that matter (including, perhaps, Edwards himself), likely possesses. In such a situation, this indictment becomes nothing more than an opportunity for expansive and ever-malleable federal power to force itself into the most intimate details of a citizen's life and, not so incidentally, advance the careers of ambitious federal prosecutors.

Silverglate notes that "two former FEC commissioners have refused to testify as expert witnesses on behalf of the prosecution." A former FEC chairman, Scott E. Thomas, says the indictment is based on a "novel and misguided theory." In a National Review Online essay, Stephen M. Hoersting, co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, also takes a skeptical view of the indictment:

The government's case sinks or soars on the charge that Edwards's desire to hide his mistress would not have existed "irrespective of" his candidacy, the standard that marks the line between campaign use of funds and personal use. But any layman knows that charge isn’t true. The desire to hide a mistress would exist whether Edwards was running for president, serving as senator, or trying cases as an attorney.

I commented on the Edwards indictment a few weeks ago. Silverglate warns of the dangers posed by vague federal criminal statutes in the July issue of Reason.