The Washington Post
Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Rightby Thane Rosenbaum
Justice is not blind, proclaims Rosenbaum (human rights, legal humanities, and law and literature; Fordham U.) and neither is he. He worked as a lawyer long enough to get a feel for what is wrong with the system, and shares some of his insights with the uninitiated: a pound of flesh, aborted trials and lying under the law, judges who feign not having feelings, rescue… See more details below
Justice is not blind, proclaims Rosenbaum (human rights, legal humanities, and law and literature; Fordham U.) and neither is he. He worked as a lawyer long enough to get a feel for what is wrong with the system, and shares some of his insights with the uninitiated: a pound of flesh, aborted trials and lying under the law, judges who feign not having feelings, rescue as moral imperative, and the artist and the law. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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The Myth of Moral JusticeWhy Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Right
By Rosenbaum, Thane
HarperCollins PublishersISBN: 0060188162
Doing the Right Thing:
The Split Between The Moral and the Legal
In the motion picture The Verdict (1982), directed by Sidney Lumet from a screenplay written by David Mamet, Paul Newman, playing the role of Frank Galvin, a washed-up, ambulance-chasing, alcoholic attorney desperate for a second chance, sums up his case to the jury by imploring, and empowering them, to simply do the right thing.
Throughout the film the jurors become witnesses to an avalanche of moral corruption and cynicism -- all courtesy of the legal system. They see the artifice that shadows the spectacle of a trial, the breaches of professional duty and lapses in human character, the way the courtroom, despite its sturdy, marbled appearance, can serve as an unbalanced playing field for those outmatched by resources and foiled by foul play. And there are so many instances of tampering, not with the jury, but with what the jury is exposed to: manipulated procedural and evidentiary rules, and the ways in which money is used to silence the truth. Having faith that the jury will be able to judge what is real, honest, and human from the staged facades and deceit that dominated the courtroom, Paul Newman ultimately summed up what most people expect and wish the law to be:
So much of the time we're just lost. We say, please God, tell us what is right, tell us what is true. When there is no justice, the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead. We think of ourselves as victims, and we become victims ... We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs, we doubt our institutions. We doubt the law. But today you are the law. Not some book. Not some lawyer ... These are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are in fact a prayer, a fervent and frightened prayer ... In my religion we say, "Act as if thee had faith." Faith will be given to you. If we are to have faith in justice we are only to believe in ourselves and act with justice.
Law and religion. Judges and clergy. Verdicts and absolutions. Blind faith and blind justice.
For most people, there is a belief that the values and teachings that are embodied in both law and religion -- the consciousness and ideals that are invoked in cathedrals and courthouses -- are basically the same, that they go hand in hand. In practice, however, they are connected by left feet. Law and religion are, in fact, largely and unfortunately not inspired by the same values, although most of us wish to believe otherwise.
We assume that an exalted sense of rightness, and knowing the proper standards for engaging in the world and dealing with our fellow human beings, is what clergy and judges have in common. But men of the cloth and men who sit on judicial benches see the world quite differently from one another. And it's not merely their elevated pedestals that make it so. Let us not be fooled by the robes: priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, and jurists may dress the same, but they are not the same. Uniforms can be deceiving; the mirage of uniformity -- despite the fact that judges wear black robes and clergy are sometimes dressed in white -- may be more of a caveat than sartorial coincidence. And yes, courts and churches are decorated with similar props and vestments. But, once more, the similarity here is only one of interior design. The decor is intended to elicit a particular emotion, an aura that isn't always deserved, but does command respect.
Despite The Verdict's spirited call to faith, the faith that animates religion does not exist in the law. In the film, the jury exercises faith in its own judgment, ultimately rejecting what it sees as the immoral shenanigans of a system that plays by its own blighted rules. But, of course, The Verdict is a movie, and the jurors are only actors. Most actual juries don't have the kind of moral courage to flagrantly ignore the instructions of the judge, and even if they did, the judge would ultimately nullify their verdict.
In another Sidney Lumet movie, in fact, his first feature film, 12 Angry Men (1957), the jury once more commands center stage -- not in the jury box, but in the jury room itself. It is a film that deals with the conflicts and deliberations that precede the actual verdict. It is a fictional, inside glance of what the law looks like as it arrives at its judgments. But unlike the jury in The Verdict, the one in 12 Angry Men prevailed over its own human failings and redeemed itself by exposing emotional truths that the trial would never have uncovered. For reasons of prejudice and expediency, the jurors, at the outset of their deliberations, presume that the defendant is guilty, even though, in a criminal trial, innocence is always presumed until proven otherwise. The deliberations in 12 Angry Men transform the jury from one that shares a nonchalant certainty about guilt to one that eventually sees more complexity in the story of this defendant, which lead them to find him innocent. One juror, played by Henry Fonda, calls attention to other values, motives, and events that his colleagues had been willing to overlook. Ultimately they arrive at a verdict that is both legally and morally correct.
In The Verdict and 12 Angry Men, Lumet provides two portraits of juries, each overcoming either the perversions of the system or their own prejudices, and, in the end, doing what's right. But since the law sets such a bad example in guiding their conscience, the jury must have faith in each other to impose justice on a system that is equally disposed to injustice.Continues...
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