Saturday, March 17, 2012

Justice in a messy world

In my last year at Oxford, I shared a college house with a law student. (We didn't know each other; the college assigned.) I had a lot of fun hearing about his law classes, especially where his subjects overlapped with those I was studying in moral and political philosophy, but I think he got the narrow end of the stick. I did well on my Political Philosophy exam, but he did poorly on the relevant exam in Law. We concluded it was because philosophers think they're getting somewhere when they take a question apart, show its obscurities and multiple possible interpretations, but in the law someone has to come to a judgment. Incomplete information means more jobs for scholars, but drawing conclusions from incomplete information is the jurist's daily bread.

I was reminded of this today as a friend of mine, who works in the legal system, and I got into an almost-spat over the case of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers freshman whose spy-cam harassment of his gay roommate Tyler Clementi led to Clementi's suicide last year. Yesterday, Ravi was found guilty on all fifteen charges raised against him in a court in New Jersey (not including responsibility for Clementi's death). It's a painful case, but as serious as can be. What Ravi intended was a central question, but nobody thinks he intended for Clementi to die. As my friend said, it's two tragedies. But we weren't able to agree in our reactions, as they were expressed not just in different idioms but in terms of different structures. I was doing the moral philosopher thing, she the lawyer thing. We expressed our awareness (and pain) at the difficulty of the case in different ways.

We agreed, I think, that on the substance of the charges, given regnant legal definitions, Ravi is guilty. But when I tried to abstract from those definitions and the verdict to register concern that the situation may have been charged with issues around race as well as sexuality (by many accounts, being an Asian American man is an uphill battle in this country), my friend thought I was challenging the verdict. I'm not, I said, I just think there's more to the story than we know. If we knew it it might well strengthen, not mitigate, the judgment.

But there's more to every story than we know, and lawyers and juries have to live with that. Her way of dealing with unhappiness at the prospect of a foolish, imperfect, perhaps cruel young man's life being ruined took a different form. Were she the judge, she said, she'd be lenient in sentencing. 18 months in prison and 36 on probation, with some sort of education or community service - and zero tolerance if he were to try to skip town, zero.

In the hot-cold-hot of her imagined sentence - lenient but no tolerance beyond that - I heard a similar discomfort with the verdict and the predicted 10+ years (or deportation), but there's a big difference, and that's probably why my questions seemed to her to be challenging the jury's verdict. In the legal system there is a place for a determination of justice: the jury, doing the best it can with what the evidence it is presented. And there is a place for mercy: in the judge's sentencing. In my thinking about cases I don't have to distinguish these, indeed, I assume that there should be some way to combine them, that that's what justice is. Perhaps it is, or would be in a perfect world with perfect knowledge. (I'd say "God's justice," but that God's justice, too, somehow transcends and incorporates a tension between human understandings of justice and mercy.)

In this messy world, higher justice may be better served by separating the narrowly and precisely defined question of law from the broader concerns a judge takes into account in sentencing. ... But you need us impractical types, too, keeping alive the dream of a fuller justice.

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