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The Law and Silvio Berlusconi

Wednesday was a bad day for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but a good day for Italian democracy. Those are the only two things that are immediately clear after the country’s highest court overturned an outrageous law passed after elections last year granting Mr. Berlusconi immunity from prosecution as long as he remained in office.

The Constitutional Court upheld the fundamental democratic principle that no one, however rich or powerful, can stand above the law, even if a compliant Parliament legislates immunity. Where those prosecutions will now lead and whether they will make it impossible for Mr. Berlusconi to serve out the remaining three and a half years of his term are, for now, unanswerable questions.

Mr. Berlusconi has spent his political career claiming that the judicial system has a left-wing bias and that Italy’s independent magistrates conduct political vendettas against him. While the Italian justice system is slow and far from perfect, the courts are the least discredited part of Italy’s government. After Wednesday’s ruling they stand taller.

The court’s decision revives three pending cases against Mr. Berlusconi. In one, a British lawyer has already been convicted of accepting $600,000 to give false testimony to shield Mr. Berlusconi in two corruption trials. In another, the prime minister — who is also one of Italy’s wealthiest men — is accused of tax fraud in connection with the expansion of his private media empire. In the third and weakest case, he is accused of trying to bribe members of Parliament to join his ruling coalition.

Mr. Berlusconi’s lawyers complained that the need to now defend himself in court will be a major distraction from his responsibilities. But he already seemed to be spending far more energy defending his controversial personal life than tackling Italy’s overwhelming problems, including years of sub-par growth, pervasive corruption and a deficit and national debt that are among Europe’s highest. Italy cannot afford more years of drift, but it can even less afford to have the rule of law hijacked to protect one man.

There are no obvious successors among Mr. Berlusconi’s quarrelsome center-right coalition, or in a fractured and demoralized center-left unable to rally around any vision, leader or program. That is not an acceptable situation for Italy or Europe. The Berlusconi era has gone on far too long, with far too few positive accomplishments. It is time for both coalitions to develop a new generation of more constructive and competent leaders to put before the electorate.

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