When a law is misinterpreted and enforced by a "power class" in a social hierarchy, and the stated justification has no basis even in the laws to which to the justification makes reference, is there a word to describe such abuse of a legal system in this way?

This commonly arises when a corrupt ruling elite (such a junta) tries to tip the balance of justice to benefit them and their interests more than other groups without eschewing the appearance of legitimacy afforded by pretending to operate within that society's legal system. While adopting the pretence of consensus sanction for arbitrary actions benefits the junta momentarily, to legitimise things such as curfews and executions, the spurious reference to a part of the law which on clearer inspection has no bearing, or only tenuous bearing, to the case in hand, eventually comes to light and erodes the junta's legitimacy.


The answer is what Black's Law Dictionary terms Color of Law.

Here is the definition from the abridged fifth addition: "The appearance or semblance without the substance of legal right. Misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because wrongdoer is clothed with authority of state."

  • color of law is a great turn of phrase. I take it to be used as "The new decree was presented with the color of constitutionality but was widely seen as contravening basic rights" which is not quite as elegant as the wikipedia example, "the officer acted with the color of authority". – Cris Jun 19 '14 at 13:18

I think abuse may be used in the context described:

An unjust or wrongful practice: a government that commits abuses against its citizens.

  • abuse is good, but color seems to get it better. – Cris Jun 19 '14 at 13:18

There is the sarcastic usage (misusage?) of the phrase the golden rule. In this context, it is said to mean

He who has the gold rules (or makes the rules).

In stark contrast, the classic concept of the golden rule posits

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

This nobler concept is accepted as a guiding principle in many religions and social traditions.

There is a common political structure known as an oligarchy

a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also : a group exercising such control

While control or influence by a powerful elite does not necessarily imply corruption and selfserving behavior, it is often the case.


I believe you are specifically asking for legal opportunism:

Legal opportunism is a wide area of human activity, which refers generally to a type of abuse of the proper intention of legal arrangements (the "spirit of the law" as distinguished from the letter of the law). More specifically, it refers to deliberately manipulating legal arrangements for purposes they were not meant for, guided by self-interested motives.

Often, legal opportunism is enabled because a rule must be interpreted in order to apply it (i.e., how exactly it applies in the given situation is not self-evident or obvious), where the chosen interpretation is precisely the one that favours one's self-interest.

As a single word, you can use manipulation or exploitation (or their verb forms).

  • legal opportunism does hit the mark. – Cris Jun 19 '14 at 13:14

Akangaroo court seems to fit the bill: one meaning is "a court held by a legitimate judicial authority who intentionally disregards the court's legal or ethical obligations."

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