Hard cases made bad law, an old legal saying goes. So, I suppose, do sad cases. The sad case of John Edwards could lead to sadder law.
Every time we might think the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate from North Carolina could not sink any lower in public esteem, he seems to find a way. This time he sinks with the added weight of a federal indictment handed down Friday by a grand jury after a two-year investigation.
It's not only the crime but also the cover-up that nailed Edwards in the eyes of the prosecutors. He was indicted on six counts. Four involved illegal payments, one involved conspiracy and one involved false statements.
This case is made particularly sad by Edwards' defense: His attorneys say he meant only to lie and cheat on his wife, not the voters.
Prosecutors say he accepted more than $900,000 and, without properly reporting it, used it to hide his extramarital affair to save his candidacy. Edwards counters through his attorneys that he did, indeed, use the money to hide the affair, but only to save his marriage, he argues, not to save his campaign.
How does one separate those two motives in the midst of a presidential campaign? Good question. It might take an ego the size of a former presidential candidate to think he and his attorneys can slice the baloney that thin.
But campaign law was not totally clear at the time, which makes this an inviting challenge for a seasoned trial lawyer like Edwards. He had a chance to reach a plea deal and avoid indictment, but he chose to fight it out in court, his lawyers said.
"The government's theory is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law," Greg Craig, one of Mr. Edwards's lawyers, said in a statement ringing with confidence last week.
For a trial lawyer who once wrote a book about his biggest personal injury triumphs as if they were landmarks of jurisprudence, it is not surprising that Edwards might listen to the little voice in his head that says, "I can beat this."
It also makes perfect sense in the John Edwards narrative, after his meteoric rise to prominence and presidential candidacy, that he would think once again he might charm a jury into seeing things his way.
But even if John Edwards manages to win in the court of law, he's already a loser in the court of public opinion.
It was bad enough that he stood with his wife by his side in 2008 and admitted his affair, asking God for forgiveness, and going through the other usual rituals of political redemption undertaken by unfaithful politicians.
But he lied when he denied being the father of freelance campaign videographer Rielle Hunter's child, a story that the National Enquirer exposed with a front page photo of Hunter and Edwards holding the little girl.
He eventually split with his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, a very popular lawyer and health care activist who was struggling with cancer. She died last December.
After lying to his wife and to the rest of us about an extramarital affair, which wrecked his marriage and ended his political career, the best he can do for his reputation at this point is to avoid being seen as a felon, too, which also would cost him his law license -- and bring possible jail time.
In the end, Edwards' case may come down to what a candidate can or cannot call "campaign-related" versus "personal" when the campaign donations roll in. It's an important question. Edwards might still be able to win a jury over with his charm, although I don't think he's got enough of that left.