Old Diary

Judges are Humans Too

scales-of-justiceNot every nation on earth treats justice the same way we do here in the U.S.. In fact, “justice” is very much a reflection of the society of people it serves.

One of the lasting lessons I took from my time in college came out of a Social Geography class. I don’t think it would be called a “comparative” geography class today as it wasn’t about comparing societies, it was about highlighting the ways in which social constructs took shape among peoples of differing ethnic and social backgrounds.

Let’s be a little more specific.  In some countries around the world the last place people want to end up is in court.  They will take great efforts to settle their legal disputes before they reach the court system, and should it happen that a dispute actually shows up in front of a magistrate it’s considered dishonorable, or a shame on the family.  In the U.S. however we are super-quick to seek out the legal system to address our complaints and it’s often said that the U.S. is the most litigious country in the world.  I don’t doubt that. Of course, making use of the legal system also involves exchanges of a great deal of money — something you would expect in a Capitalist society.

Someone I know was recently sentenced in a criminal case.  The punishment came out to some community service, a fine, and two short stints in the workhouse — a system here in some states where the criminal is confined at night but allowed to go to work at their regular job during the day.  In the sentencing there were provisions made for possible home confinement, presumably with a monitor.

I found the sentencing interesting because I could guarantee that a variety of other people sentenced the same day were not treated as leniently, nor as lightly.  And it brought to mind the fact that our concept of who a judge is in the United States is most likely skewed.

Judges are, after all, human.  They come from a variety of backgrounds, though most  of them from relatively affluent families.  It’s expensive to go to better schools, to complete the added years of education, to do all the things that are necessary to end up sitting on the bench.  Among judges there are those who are alcoholics, and those who are not.  There are those who are single, married, and divorced. There are probably drug users and sober folk.  You name the condition and you are likely to find a judge somewhere that fits the description.  My point being that they are people of like passions, problems, prejudices, and peculiarities just the same as the rest of the population.

I have sometimes wondered why anyone would think that they deserve to be a judge. What gives them the …. whatever it takes … to not only know the law but also to be of a mindedness as to administer they law fairly, without prejudice, or favoritism.  And the reality of life in the United States is that nothing is ever perfect.  The best judges in the country are not 100% of the time fair, without prejudice, or favoritism.  They are weak and flawed individuals just like the rest of us.  And as with the rest of us, power is always accompanied by the threat of corruption.   It’s not uncommon that insider information can be passed to them, that stock tips can be passed on, that perks and trips and all manner of niceties that they might never afford on their salary can be offered and accepted all in the name of being pillars of the community and participating in routine social events.  Most of the time no one says anything.  Most of the time no one knows anything. But judges get their heads turned in favor of leniency, or even greater harshness depending on the social climate in their community.

It’s frustrating to hear stories of decisions handed down that seem skewed to one side or another.  It’s frustrating to hear stories of decisions that seem unjustly unfair to the poor when the more affluent seem to have access to an entirely different judicial system — as long as they can pay for it.

Judges are human.  That’s good and that’s bad.  They can feel compassion, they can also shut it up.  They can require the letter of the law, or they can turn a blind eye.  Just like a parent who is free to be an excellent parent or a horrible parent, a judge’s administration of the law is very much up to the judge.  Some of our judges are elected.  Others are nominated/appointed.  Some serve for a specified term, some serve for life.  A wonderful judge serving for life is a boon to society.  A crummy judge serving for life is an abomination.  But as citizens we take our chances with whatever comes along.

Judges are human, too.