Sunday, March 18, 2012

Justice or Jousting

I was surprised to discover that “justice” and “joust” derive from the same Latin root. My idyllic vision of justice was that of wise and fair-mined jurists meeting to determine the facts of a situation and issue a judgment intended to set things right. Not so, apparently.

This problem of unrequited injustice is old. Two and a half millennia ago a prophet of Israel, looking at the condition of his nation cried out: 

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil . . . there is no justice in their paths . . .

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows . . .

We look for justice, but find none . . . justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey . . .

The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice.

Zondervan (2010-12-26). Holy Bible (NIV) (p. 674). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. Isaiah 50:4 – 15 excerpted.

In Wisconsin we read of dissention – even verbal and physical violence – among the jurists in our highest court. A Montana Federal judge is revealed to have distributed vulgar and racist (though he denies being a racist) e-mail messages savaging the President of the United States. While serving jury duty a few years ago I observed the judge sleeping during testimony, the prosecutor manipulating evidence to favor his case, and the defense attorney – provided to the defendant at public expense – slouching in his chair, dressed as though he had hurriedly crawled out of bed to get to the trial, and offering no defense of his client.

If these were exceptional indications of the state of “justice” in our land, it would be one thing. But they are all too common. Trials are not a search for truth and justice. Rather they are jousting matches between competing lawyers. Occasionally justice, or some rough equivalent of it, emerges from these contests – the bad guy goes to jail and the good guy is vindicated – but that does not occur because the system is designed to find a true and just result. It is designed to allow those who can afford the best “defense” to escape justice. In the process those who can’t afford such luxury go away empty-handed or, in the worst case, pay with their life.

At the highest level – the United States Supreme Court – things are no better. It may never have been the case that appointments to that body were made based on the belief that the person being appointed would be unbiased and non-partisan. But it is assumed – in theory – that if all other recourse fails, one will get a fair hearing at the highest level and that justice will be done. But that is a pipe dream – hallucinatory. When the opportunity comes for a President to appoint a new justice it is assumed that he or she will appoint someone whose political allegiances are aligned with his own. So we end up with courts predictably divided into “conservative” and “liberal” factions, delivering predictable decisions in all but the least controversial cases.

Justice, if we could get it, would not always be popular. It would not be “pretty”. It would sting the powerful and the weak alike. But in the end it would send a message through our society that right living and right actions stand one in the best position to be vindicated if they must come before a court of justice. The assumption now is that by winning elections we can pack the courts with those who will support our cause right or wrong. That means, of course, that over the years we simply swing from one version of injustice to another.

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