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“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the film version of the fifth book of J.K. Rowling’s brilliantly creative story, is playing in theaters the world over while the final installment in the story, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is shattering global book sales records. In the epic tales, along with the adventures of Harry and his friends, we learn a great deal about government and law in the wizarding society. Rowling has created a world in which government is monolithic, totalitarian, and bureaucratic and the law is dysfunctional, without any semblance of due process and unconcerned with correct outcomes. Neither institution can be relied upon to protect or dispense justice to its citizens. Accordingly, Harry and his allies — suspicious and dismissive of government — are left to take matters into their own hands, engaging in self-help and situational ethics. And millions of young people who soak in these details may see these problems reflected in their own institutions and perhaps even wonder if Harry had the right solution. One example of the legal system occurs early in “Phoenix,” when Harry stands trial for violation of the ban against underage use of magic. His use of the Patronus Charm was in response to an unprovoked attack upon him and his cousin by two Dementors, the dangerously aggressive guardians of Azkaban prison who inhale the souls of their victims. The trial is scheduled only after strings are pulled with the Ministry of Magic, which had already summarily found Harry guilty and imposed a sentence of expulsion from school. No defense counsel would have been appointed had Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, not intervened. Harry’s wizarding world is divided between the forces of good, represented by Harry and Dumbledore, and those of evil — the Death Eaters — ruled over by the Dark Lord, Voldemort. The “good” side, however, for all its benevolence, has a political system devoid of democracy, representative government, civil rights, or due process of law. Instead, it is one of bureaucratic totalitarianism, political connections, and a press subject to government manipulation. ON YOUR OWN, KIDS Harry and his Hogwarts mates learn quickly that they are basically on their own. It is clear that the adult wizards and witches and their institutions of government and justice are incapable of protecting them or even of treating them fairly. Professors like Dolores Umbridge engage in drugging and torture of students to ensure compliance with government policy and propaganda. The government of the British wizarding world is unitary, consisting solely of an executive Ministry of Magic. It is run by a dictatorial and manipulative minister, with the power to unilaterally issue decrees. The Ministry alone writes and administers a large body of laws, and citizens of the wizarding world are closely monitored. The minister is supported by a large institution of bureaucrats and toadies. Sound familiar? Unfamiliar, however, is the lack of any legislature or judiciary outside of the Ministry. Nor is there any indication that the minister or any of his subordinates are subject to election or to any checks and balances. There is no evidence of democracy or republicanism, with the minister “named” by an unknown political power. One of the main interests of the Ministry is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. No one seriously questions the propriety of government directing the operations of the English society’s sole center of learning. The Ministry does not hesitate to place trusted teachers on the school faculty and direct the content of a proper syllabus to instill government-censored and approved material. Students are warned at the beginning of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that going into the Hogwarts forest is punishable by death. Teen students Cedric Diggory and Moaning Myrtle are murdered at Hogwarts, and the adults are in useless denial. Students are literally tortured as punishment for noncompliance with illegitimate teacher directives, and others are recruited into a Hitler Youth-like group of snitches and moles. For all their magic, the citizens have a markedly unreliable criminal justice system. For example, we learn in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that the government has wrongly imprisoned Harry’s godfather Sirius Black for life on charges of mass murder. Other miscarriages of justice take place in the sixth and seventh books, in which the Ministry arrests innocent wizards and witches in its propaganda-based crackdown on potential supporters of the Dark Lord. The low esteem in which the law is held is evidenced by Harry’s friend Hermoine Granger when she rejects the suggestion of a legal career, explaining that she wants “to do some good in the world.” Summary guilt determination and questionable use of prosecutorial discretion is the norm, while domestic law enforcement and homeland security are so feeble that known Death Eaters such as Lucius Malfoy openly plot on Voldemort’s behalf and even exercise influence in the Ministry. The Ministry maintains a brutal penal system in which the horrible Azkaban prison chains inmates in medieval cells and houses sociopaths along with minor offenders, with no effort at rehabilitating either. Its prison guards, the Dementors, have no interest in distinguishing the guilty from innocents. They terrorize and are feared by all. Children come to accept that at any moment they could be facing a horribly powerful creature intent on devouring their souls. FEW CIVIL RIGHTS Citizens of Harry’s world enjoy few civil rights. Not only does the Ministry push propaganda through an actual Office of Misinformation, but it also punishes prohibited speech. Freedom of the press is limited at best. The one newspaper, The Daily Prophet, can be regularly relied upon to be either knowingly wrong or a propaganda tool of the government. In Deathly Hallows the paper is taken over by the Death Eaters. There is little equal protection of the law. Wizard society tolerates slavery of humanoid creatures called house-elves. Centaurs and giants fare little better. Harry’s is a class society in which those with money, influence, and proper breeding (that is, no Muggle, or nonwizard, blood) are widely accepted as being superior. The effect of all of this, a society in which its major institutions cannot be relied upon for justice and protection, is to instill in its young citizens a sense of instability and insecurity understandably resulting in an ethical ambiguity. Just as they are required to fend for themselves in so many other ways, Harry and his mates must often define their ethics for themselves. The result is a reliance on situational ethics in which, for example, Harry and Cedric’s cheating during the Triwizard Tournament is done without remorse. Teachers and other adults are circumvented, ignored, disobeyed, lied to, tricked, and mocked. Breaking the rules, sneaking around under cover of invisibility cloaks, harboring fugitives, eavesdropping, and spying on elder authority figures are routine. In a world devoid of institutions that function as models of justice, due process, and basic civil rights, it is understandable that Harry and his Hogwarts mates substitute self-reliance to guide their behavior. We can be so glad that we in the Muggle world don’t have to worry about any of these deficiencies in our governmental and legal institutions. Right?
Andrew Fois is a D.C. lawyer in private practice. The views expressed on Harry Potter are solely his own and not necessarily those of his Muggle employer.

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