Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Interest of the Weaker

I’m going to try and do something totally serious here on a topic I have wanted to write about for decades. I’ve tried before but have always gotten mired down in convoluted details. So let’s see how this goes.

In society, what do we mean by justice? I’m talking about when someone commits a crime, is arrested and tried for it. Just exactly what is justice? Maybe I’ve been reading too many Robert Tanenbaum and John Lescroart novels recently but I’ve always wanted to take a whack at describing my thoughts on the subject.

In “The Republic”, Plato ultimately describes justice as the protection of the interests of the weaker. I’ve always believed this to be arguably the best definition. We must always zealously safeguard the rights of the weaker party in any situation.

If someone is mugged, that victim is the weaker party. Another person has accosted them and deprived them of their property. The person who was mugged reports this to the police. That’s how things are done in a society. With the police report, the victim is now out of the picture. The full might and power of the state (government) is now focused on the person who committed the crime. And that’s a lot of muscle.

Let’s say that someone is arrested for the mugging (and assume that all the legal “t’s” were crossed and all the “i’s” were dotted). The suspect will be booked, charged, put into jail and then arraigned before a judge. Now in our system, there is the classic presumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. This person has been formally accused of the crime. At this point, the suspect becomes the weaker. The entire focus of the state is upon him—police officers, lawyers, etc. It can be a crushing burden.

The suspect is now the weaker and his interests must be as zealously protected as the victim’s. And that is only right and just and fair. All of the suspect’s rights must be safeguarded. Otherwise the state could do whatever it wants—including torture, coercion, lying, etc. to get a conviction. But it can’t because the accused has the same rights as anyone else and they must be protected. To fail to protect those rights would mean that the rights of anyone or everyone could be abrogated just as easily.

I read something recently about trials which said that the prosecution has a double burden. First it must win its case—beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, it must make sure that the entire proceeding is fair. That’s the protection of the weaker. Plus, the defense is there to safeguard the defendant as well—and to try to get him or her off.

Now, this is mostly philosophical and I know that there are multitudes of arguments that can be made that oftentimes the system just doesn’t work that way. That’s right. There are plea bargains. There is misconduct. For decades the law was abused and allowed to perpetuate segregation and discrimination.

All that is true. But, the essence is that the protection of the interest of the weaker is what drives and fuels our entire society whether it’s criminal justice or civil justice or social justice. The good thing is that in America we pay more than lip service to this notion. It’s imperfect but we strive mightily to make it reality.

Gee, maybe that MA in Political Philosophy wasn’t a total waste after all. Thanks Dr. Poochigian.

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