Jury of our peers
Our justice system’s problems go deeper than we think
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Almost 75 years ago, a big brick courthouse in Waterloo, Iowa, handed me my first disappointment with civil justice.
I sat with my father and my grandfather while a judge ruled against them in a tax case involving the grain business they owned together. I was only 5 years old, but I learned that a building’s impressive looks and a judge’s authoritative appearance weren’t enough to ensure that justice would be served. My father and grandfather were honest businessmen, and they were grieved that their government was treating them unfairly.
Thirty-five years later, a van operated by the Christian high school where I was headmaster was involved in a minor fender bender—but not so minor that the driver of the other car didn’t sue. Four times, I took five students from their classes for the whole morning to serve as witnesses in the court case that followed. Four times, the party suing our school and its insurance company failed even to show up in court. And four times, inexplicably, the judge continued the case. The students learned a good bit more about American justice than I wanted them to.
Fast-forward 10 years. A hospitalized friend was raped in the middle of the night by a male nurse in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. The criminal and civil cases that followed over the next few years made cynics of most of us who wanted to stand by our friend. Looking for justice, she got mere scraps thrown out the back door of a traveling circus.
I cite these specific scenarios, as I have before in this space, because they illustrate so vividly how broken our system of justice tends to be here in America. The whole idea of a process thoughtfully assembled through the centuries was to gather components in careful balance that would punish wrongdoers while also protecting the rights of the innocent. But many Americans have lost all confidence that such justice prevails.
Why shouldn’t they? When righteous government shows itself so elusive, when educational systems have rotted to the core, when the term “business ethics” strikes many as an oxymoron, when the great old institutions fail us—why should we be surprised when jurisprudence also shows signs of collapse?
You may well have your own little list of personal disappointments. But whether we’re talking about government, education, business, or some other system, keep in mind that we’re not finally dealing with problems of structure, process, or methodology. The problem is with people.
The problem isn’t with the jury selection procedure. It’s with the people who get selected.
The problem is that the people who get put on the juries, the people chosen as judges, and the people who become policemen and then get called on as witnesses—all these people have been shaped by the governments, the educational institutions, the business ethics, and the systems of justice of our day. The result is that you don’t really want to put your welfare in the hands of such people. People can no longer be trusted to produce what we used to call “justice.” The basic tools of justice were never put in their hands in the first place.
You can’t tell people for two or three generations, for example, that there’s no such thing as “truth” and that nothing is absolute—and then expect them to take truth seriously.
The bottom line is this: Imagine you’re on trial for your life. But before the trial begins, you have a chance to get on a bus or an airplane, or go to your doctor’s waiting room, to walk through the seats, and to pick any 12 people at random to serve as the jury that will determine your guilt or innocence. Does it matter to you what kind of teaching these people have had all their lives on the issue of truth as absolute or merely relative? Does it matter where they went to Sunday school, what kind of gospel they heard? Where they think the world and everything in it originally came from?
If you would be scared, as I would, to go out and pick your own jury in a case like that, no tinkering with the system will work. It’s the people within the system who have lost their way.
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