As the New Year approaches, all of us traditionally hope for a better time than the past year provided us. This year, however, for the first time in my 69 year old memory, that hope is tempered for many of us by our different takes on the meaning of recent events including the presidential election of 2016. This makes our expectations at best, uncertain and at worst, not equal to or less than what they have been in the past. Indeed the perceived prospect of lower economic rewards and the continued politicization of the institutions of all three branches of government casts a bit of melancholy over the celebration of the advent of the New Year.
With that in mind and with I hope the proper degree of humility, as well as a recognition that our hopes and dreams should not be born out of naiveté or unrealistic expectations for the human race, and more particularly those who are elected and/or appointed to lead us in the country and in the world, I offer the following suggested “2016 New Year’s Resolutions for Judges, Politicians, and Policy Makers.”
We should resolve to understand, as we often listen to and see, on a daily basis, horrifying, as well as occasionally happy events and people, that the law can and should attempt to make things right. However, the law is usually limited, as are judges, legislators and even executives in what can be accomplished. Specifically, we are usually confined to imposing a small quantum of order and predictability on the vagaries of our existence and to softening the rough edges of our fellow citizens’ lives. It is, therefore, important for all of us to remember that for many people, life remains at least at times, bewildering, unpredictable and for some of our less fortunate fellow citizens, frightening.
We should resolve to remember that life is too powerful to face alone. That means that no one, not a president, not a senator, not a general and not a prosecutor, defense attorney or even a judge, can live or work successfully without a commitment to other human beings and to values. A commitment to other human beings means that you are obliged to behave with respect, as well as concern, toward the people who need and respect you, both personally and professionally.
For those of us who have the honor of carrying the title of judge before their name, our commitment to values means that we will uphold the tradition of the Bench on which we serve to maintain a high level of scholarship. It also means that we will treat every person who appears before us courteously regardless of their station in life and that we will summon the “courage” to do what the law requires, even if that is a course which is not a popular one.
Our commitment to values also means that we will maintain our sense of justice and integrity. These two values cannot be separated. A commitment to justice requires that as judges after listening to the evidence and applying the law to the facts in each case in our courtrooms that we reach beyond that almost mechanical protocol and fully comprehend how our decision will affect the human beings involved in the case. It also requires us to make the effort to appreciate whether that decision is fundamentally fair to each of these people. This coupled with a commitment to integrity, which requires us not to knowingly do anything that we know to be wrong or to say anything that we know to be untrue, will hopefully bring the result in each case over which we preside as close to justice as is humanly possible.
Finally, we should resolve to remember that perhaps the most important New Year’s resolution that a judge or anyone else can make in both their professional and personal lives is to be a decent human being and to maintain a sense of humor. That requires that we continue to take our jobs seriously and ourselves less so. It means that we must try, at all times, to see the irony and on occasion the mirth in most situations. It also, perhaps most importantly, means remembering the words of the lawyer, Reverdy Johsnon, in the play, “The Trial of Mary Surratt.”
“We have struggled through centuries of ignorance and terror to where life is made secure and worth living, by a faith in justice. Far greater than anything man has wrought from his surroundings is that concept of justice. He may lose his belief in God and still find life endurable. He can be robbed of his faith in love and the goodness of man and still survive. But render justice meaningless and you destroy the last of his faiths. In self-defense, he must return back to violence for survival. This room is filled with a million ghosts. The dead and the unborn plead for a just world. It has been over two thousand years since we were told that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor the justice to the innocent. Is that to be the hopeless law of life? Surely, we have made a little progress in all those years. Surely, justice can be the reward of the innocent. I beg you to pause – to listen above the cries for vengeance and to hear the voices of these gentle ghosts.”
We should all listen to the voices of our “gentle ghosts” at least a little more in 2017 than before. Have a happy and fulfilling New Year!