Inconsistencies in application of law breed distrust

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial there have been calls for justice for Trayvon Martin. Many feel Justice wasn’t served. But what is Justice?

Unfortunately, it’s not what you think. Laws do not give “justice.” Law is simply the framework of our society. Justice is derived through the consistent application of the law.

Draco of ancient Athens instituted the first written laws to be enforced by legal proceedings, a court. Even though the laws were harsh — “Draconian”— the people loved it because there was order. It minimized the number of blood feuds and duels, and was the starting point of our modern system.

Our system also has deep roots in English Common Law, which distinguished between crimes that were malum in se, moral wrongs such as murder or rape, and crimes that were malum prohibitum, wrongs by legislative fiat.

In cases such as Martin/Zimmerman laws against murder compete with laws for self defense. With no clear picture as to events, there can be no “just” outcome. Justice for either side would be injustice for the other. In the universal rush to judgment, most lost sight of the need for due process.

I don’t know what’s right or wrong here, but due process was followed. The larger issue is that we have lost faith in the process. We have come to believe it is manipulated by those with money and power.

O.J. Simpson got off. Jeffrey Skilling of Enron had 10 years lopped off his sentence. You can’t trust the system if you don’t have faith in the outcome.

Sometimes our sense of outrage leads to convictions of innocent people. This issue is so common that the state Legislature recently passed a law to redress wrongful convictions.

Sometimes we wonder at seeming inconsistent application of the law. Ariel Castro, the Cleveland Kidnapper, and Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, were offered plea bargains to avoid the death penalty in exchange for speedy closure for the victims and their families.

Yet others have been executed for far less heinous crimes. In what way is the death penalty then fairly enforced?

Our suspicions of the system are reinforced when it is abused by those with money and power. Congress passed laws to allow banks to invest and trade in commodities. Now aluminum is shuffled between 27 warehouses in Detroit rather than being shipped directly to factories. The additional cost of storage and handling adds small fractions of a percent to the cost of aluminum products, but provided Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions with a $5 billion windfall in the past three years, courtesy of the American consumer. (New York Times, Business, 7/21/13) This and similar legislative fiats engender distrust of our system.

Sometimes laws passed on moral beliefs (malum in se) damage our faith in the system. Pro-choice rights are under constant attack, yet the same people that revere that first spark of life usually vote to send that same life to war when it turns 18. How does one reconcile this dichotomy?

Certainly our moral judgments affect our laws, but inconsistencies in morality only breed distrust. Who would trust any privacy or decency laws promoted by New York mayor candidate Anthony Weiner?

In the past “justice” could be privately enforced in a duel with swords or guns. Given today’s state of affairs regarding home foreclosures and other shady practices, such as National Security Agency surveillance, this is a fairly attractive option. But then we will have anarchy instead of an ordered society.

How can we get fair laws, consistently applied for the good of all?

Our system considers intent or extenuating circumstances in the application of the law. It makes for a sloppy system that often does not apply an obvious justice.

Perhaps the answer to “What is justice?” lies within us. Our system is imperfect, but it works. For it to work better we need to be better citizens. Smarter, more informed, more consistent.

Originally printed in The Olympian on August 19, 2013