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Often you hear politicians say, "I cannot comment on individual cases".

I could understand if it is in court proceedings already so that politicians should avoid influencing the result, but even if it is not, they still say the same. So what's stopping them from giving out comments?

Or should I ask, why does the public accept this as a valid response? You don't hear news reporters pressing on to ask "Why can't you comment on it?", as though it's common sense that individual cases are not to be commented on.

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    Sometimes it’s more of they don’t want to, rather than they can’t.
    – Panda
    Jan 12 at 6:00
  • @Panda then why don't they say "I don't want to comment on individual cases"? Jan 12 at 6:01
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    Can you maybe give one or two real-world examples of politicians using that strategy?
    – Philipp
    Jan 12 at 9:45
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    @user1589188: That may lead to the follow-up question "Why not? Do you have something to hide?". Even if the intent is honest (don't want to interfere with an independent judiciary), being put on the defense is a bad image. By slightly overstating the matter (can't), you instead make the reporter look bad if s/he ask why not.
    – MSalters
    Jan 12 at 11:24
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    See ministerial governance for a system in which politicians are legally prohibited from making statements (which is a way of exerting influence) on individual cases.
    – C. E.
    Jan 13 at 0:04
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There is usually no legal reason why a politician can't comment, but there are a number of very logical reasons why it is going to be a bad idea:

  • The politician may not have been briefed on the specific details of the case, so trying to wing it is likely to backfire. Even if they have been briefed, they can't be 100% certain that some junior staffer hasn't exaggerated something somewhere down the line.

  • The politician is theoretically responsible for the case, so admitting that a mistake was made, even if they didn't personally make it, is going to impact their credibility.

  • If the question isn't blocked, the interviewer is likely to present only one side of the case. This puts the politician in a defensive position, wrangling about small details of that case rather than letting them put forward their own ideas.

  • Giving a specific ruling on that case in public is going to set a precedent which may well cause problems down the line.

  • Even if the politician feels happy to comment on one case, the interviewer might move on to another where the politician feels on less solid ground. Then refusing to comment on the second case raises the question of what is different.

An important question you didn't ask is "why did the interviewer raise this case?" Political interviews are combative affairs: the interviewer wants an interesting programme so that people keep watching, while the politician wants to look smart, knowledgeable and with good ideas for how to run the country. These goals are incompatible so political interviews rather resemble a chess game; there are standard openings, one of which is "What about the case of Mrs Trellis of North Wales who ...", and standard counter-moves, such as "I can't comment on individual cases, but [policy statement]". This playbook has been honed over decades, and every word in it has been written in some politician's blood.

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    Logic has nothing to do with it, sadly. Jan 12 at 12:06
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    @user1589188 How is that illogical? If one does not know or know enough about an individual case, it is only logical that only general information can be provided and the audience can draw their own conclusions based on what (they think) they know about the individual case. Of course, the politician may well know the case but wants to dodge the question this way, but it doesn't sound illogical on its face.
    – xngtng
    Jan 12 at 12:13
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    Might want to include the logic that if they comment on one case but not another that would raise questions about why.
    – Joe W
    Jan 12 at 13:26
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    @AzorAhai-him- Its a rhetorical example. "Mrs Trellis" is a fictional character who is always writing confused letters to the spoof panel game "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue". Perhaps I should have used "Joe Bloggs". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I'm_Sorry_I_Haven't_a_Clue Jan 12 at 17:49
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    @user1589188 You'll often find "I can't comment specifically on the case of Mr. Johnson, but generally [general policy statement without mentioning all the possible caveats]", which doesn't imply that the cited general policy completely and wholly covers all the issues of the specific case. In any case, natural language is not all rigorous logical statements and certain exclusive inferences need to be made; after all saying anything in response to the question is technically a comment regarding the case.
    – xngtng
    Jan 13 at 2:11
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Like others have stated, in many cases the politician can comment but simply does not wish to do so. However I think there is a different take to this, when the politician has government or administrative role.

Government officials make policy and law for the general cases. Generalization is simply a necessity to govern nations, states and cities. There will always be exceptions and individual cases for which a rule or policy turns out to have unexpected or unwanted consequences, which does not immediately mean a rule or policy is bad. I think it is good practice for politicians to try and stay out of emotional discussions about individual cases. Consistent legislature and policy depends on looking at the bigger picture and the inclination of politicians to respond to public outrage about individual cases may actually harm diligent governance in my opinion.

When a topic requires a personal approach, administrative personnel outside the public eye should be mandated to make exceptions and disagreement should be brought to court. A politician should not be involved in the individual outcome.

I absolutely do not mean politician should just ignore the often very painful and horrible consequences of policy to individuals. Good governance, in my opinion, would mean that they investigate (or order to investigate) whether particular individual cases are part of a bigger pattern, which they then should do something about.

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  • Yup, this exactly!
    – mishan
    Jan 12 at 15:36
  • Yes good insight. What do you think why they choose to say "I can't comment" as oppose to more comforting "It will be looked at"? Jan 13 at 0:26
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There are several reasons why this might be the case, depending on the situation.

If it involves a case that's in court (or expected to go to court later) it often makes sense to not talk about it. If you say something, the other side is allowed to use it against you.

In some cases, there are privacy laws involved. For example, a school district might not legally be able to comment on a situation involving disciplining a student.

The police might not want to comment on an ongoing investigation for fear of compromising the investigation. You don't want to publicly announce you think Mr. Smith committed the crime if you're going to be executing a search warrant on his home tomorrow.

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  • Or they might not have (or feel they have) all the relevant data and knowledge to comment on the case. This is not only true for politicians but for anybody. If you feel like you might stick a foot in your mouth (as I sometimes do despite my best efforts) it's better to say you can;t comment (with this reason specified or not).
    – mishan
    Jan 12 at 14:51
  • True, but the phrasing in the question was "I cannot comment on individual cases". This implies all cases of a particular type, and not just one that you happen to be unfamiliar with.
    – D M
    Jan 12 at 20:53
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There are probably a few very rare cases where a question asked touches on some issue currently being discussed in court in which case a politician would be actually prohibited from giving their opinion on a matter.

In most cases, the politician is free to choose whether they want to answer the question or refuse an answer – and if they answer, how concrete they decide to make their answer (from a comprehensive discussion to a vague non-answer everything is possible). In general, they will weigh the pros and cons of providing an answer versus providing a non-answer versus explicitly not answering a question. In each individual case, they will decide which solution better advances their goals or is most beneficial to their public image. (Typically, they will have pre-empted such questions and have thought about it beforehand rather than doing the pro/con analysis on the spot.)

Of course, the reporter asking the question can choose to pursue the line of inquiry or to drop it and ask something else. This is another pro/con analysis except this time on the other side of the microphone. If the reporter thinks that any useful information can be extracted by repeatedly posing the same question in slightly modified ways or by asking why the politician is refusing to answer, rest assured a good reporter will do so.

I believe I read a while back that reporters of some major networks present at White House press conferences had agreed to continue pressing on each other’s questions if the President refused to answer them or evaded, hoping to at least get something; largely made necessary by the President offering them very little chance at pushing for an answer. However, there were always news outlets that did not form part of this informal compact.

Finally, I disagree with your assessment that ‘you don’t hear news reporters pressing on to ask “Why can’t you comment on it?”’ – I do hear that relatively often after an initial answer has been declined. As I mentioned above, it depends on whether the reporter thinks the answer to the ‘why can’t you comment?’ question will be useful or telling: if they don’t, they won’t ask but ask something else instead.

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  • Yes they sure are free to answer or not, but why choose to say "I cannot comment on individual cases" as if it means something, rather than directly "No comment"? Jan 12 at 6:16
  • Depending on jurisdiction (no specific country is mentioned or tagged in the question), politicians/lawmakers may indeed be prohibited by law to make any attempt to influence individual cases. A comment could definitely be interpreted as such an attempt.
    – Guran
    Jan 12 at 8:16
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Usually a politician genuinely cannot comment on a case that is before the courts, or going to be.

In a country where the courts are supposed to be independent of the judiciary (i.e. any functioning democracy) any pronouncements about an individual case can be seen as interference. Not only is that potentially illegal it can obstruct the case.

For example if a leader comments about a defendant that "they should be punished very heavily" then that can be taken as meaning that he wants them found guilty. This pressures the judge (whose career may depend on the leader's approval) to find the person guilty when they are really not guilty. And if the judge does find them guilty the defence is likely to appeal by saying "pressure was applied to the judge". Even if that pressure didn't change the verdict there is no way to know that for certain and there is likely to be a retrial, giving the defendant a second chance of being convicted.

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    Not in the US. The prohibition on double jeopardy would mean they couldn't get a second trial and be found guilty; the not guilty would stand even if it was flawed. (But it could work the other way, or have other consequences.)
    – D M
    Jan 12 at 20:52
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    @DM I said "retrial" not "second trial". A retrial is a technical term meaning that that results of the previous trial are invalidated and set aside and the trial is run again. It isn't prevented by double jeopardy. Jan 12 at 23:10
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    Well, the Supreme Court disagrees with you. "Perhaps the most fundamental rule in the history of double jeopardy jurisprudence has been that '(a) verdict of acquittal . . . could not be reviewed, on error or otherwise, without putting (a defendant) twice in jeopardy, and thereby violating the Constitution" - United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 571 (1977).
    – D M
    Jan 13 at 1:51
  • Retrials in the US are limited to (1) no verdict decisions, where prosecution stops but may resume, and (2) cases where the defendant only appeared to be in danger, most commonly where the judge or jury has been bribed or threatened into compliance. A judge with nebulous career concerns won’t be reviewable. Without an explicit threat by someone, the most you could conclude is that the judge leaned towards the defendant, which isn’t sufficient to say that the defendant was never in any danger. To be reviewable, the judge would have to be determined not to allow a guilty verdict.
    – jmoreno
    Jan 13 at 13:31
  • Edited to make the same point while avoiding this discussion. Jan 13 at 14:13
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Some political leaders are in a position to either give orders to police and prosecutors or to promote/not promote judges. If they give an opinion, that might be interpreted as a wish for things to happen a certain way. It is good style not to give this impression unless they actually can and do want to give an order, which should be in writing through the usual chain of command.

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  1. What about purely not feeling like you have all the relevant data and knowledge to comment on something?

It's perfectly normal to say you can't comment on something because you don't have (or feel you lack) all of the relevant/needed knowledge/information. The added incentive for the politician is that he's a public figure who (usually, but not always) has a public reputation to uphold and uttering inadvertently something stupid without research and preparation can have disastrous consequences.

Politicians in the western world are there mostly to drive policy. They do not need to be (and usually are not) subject matter experts. Their ideal role is to propose decisions based on discussion with subject matter experts and then make sure as much of the proposed decision passes through the negotiations as intact as possible (or ensure to cram as much of their agenda into decisions and propositions of others).

Asking a politician (or a lawmaker) about a specific court case is like asking a roofmaker about the weather. He can tell you that the roof he makes should be able to survive a hundred-year flood, but asking him about particularities of a hurricane in the west Atlantic is a bit out of his scope of expertise.

You can extend this reasoning to anybody who's not a subject matter expert on something and even on subject matter experts not personally involved in something.

  1. Politician is a public figure representing something. Anything they say anywhere is taken in the context of them representing their office, their party and their country.

If you ever worked in a public-facing setting for any self-respecting large company, you know there are codes of conduct ensuring you're properly representing your employer. Uttering something/anything in public setting on anything not related to your expertise AND the matter at hand is a MAJOR no-no!

Just imagine the headlines the day after you answer a question about Roe vs. Wade as a U.S. Republican senator.

  1. All of this combined ensures you want to say as little as possible about anything not related to your expertise. Just saying you can't comment and not giving a reason why is thus a continuation of this.

The more you say about anything as a politician, the more you give ammunition to your opponents to twist your words against you.

Unless you're a subject matter expert personally involved in the case with perfect knowledge of all of the particulars, who is also sure that no new evidence will emerge, then it is very unwise to comment on anything as a public figure. Your opponents can use your comments to attack you. Why the hell would you comment in that situation?

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  • On a related note, it's entirely possible that an answer which would be reasonable given information that is publicly available about the case today might be grossly unreasonable given information that becomes widely known tomorrow, and politicians would not be on the record with statements based upon the obsolete information.
    – supercat
    Jan 12 at 19:09
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In Sweden, the state apparatus is split between the elected public authority and the administrative authority. The public authority enacts laws and the administrative authority interprets laws. The ministers are part of the public authority and they indirectly steer the administrative authority they are responsible for by once or twice per year issuing updated guidelines to it. These guidelines are general (think "this year X should focus more on the problems affecting suburban youth") and it is up to the administrative authority to interpret them.

The point of this separation is to discourage what is informally called "ministerstyre" (ministerial governance, MG). MG happens when a minister applies the laws themselves. MG is undesirable because it can lead to groups or individuals receiving preferential treatment.

Suppose ten political parties apply for government funding. The minister for the authority providing the funding cannot decide whose requests should be approved because that would be MG.

Suppose one party is denied funding and that party happens to be the minister's own party. The media interviews the minister about it and they express their outrage at the department's decision and urge the party to appeal.

The minister would be guilty of MG. By telling media that the administrative authority they are responsible for made the wrong decision they are clearly trying to influence its interpretation of the laws which is forbidden. MG is quite serious and could lead to the minister's dismissal.

That's why the minister would, instead of giving their honest opinion, provide some general platitudes and the famous "I cannot comment on individual cases" when the media asks. The media knows exactly why ministers doesn't "comment on individual cases." The public doesn't and always gets incensed by it, leading to more clicks and more views... Ministers also of course use the "MG excuse" to avoid answering uncomfortable questions.

Sources, mostly in Swedish: How public agencies are governed, Ministerstyre, Ministerial governance, Offentlig rätt

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  • Really nice! But then if the media already knew, would they still ask the question and give the minister a chance to say "I can't comment on individual cases" 😂 Jan 13 at 0:14
  • It usually goes like this: Journalist: "Hello minister, your department denied insurance to Kalle Svensson, 90 years old, who is suffering from cancer. How do you explain that?" Minister: "I cannot comment on individual cases but ... <general platitudes> ..." Portraying ministers as callous is good for business. Jan 13 at 15:43
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This line is often used as an excuse to avoid answering unwelcome questions, but there are cases where it's valid:

I can understand if it is in court proceedings already so that politicians should avoid influencing the result, but even if it is not, they still say the same.

Even after a case has been finalised, there can still be an issue.

Many democracies run on a principle of "separation of powers" where different branches of government each have their own responsibilities, and convention discourages them from meddling in one another's turf.

As part of that separation, the legislative branch of government have the power to make laws but the judiciary have the responsibility of interpreting them. For a politician from the legislative or executive branches of government to say "The judge should have interpreted the law differently" is a challenge to the independence of the judiciary, which was historically frowned upon - although this convention has been often ignored lately.

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    It can also be hard to know when a case is finished, given the potential for appeals through multiple higher courts.
    – Rob
    Jan 13 at 14:57

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