June 17, 2020

No Justicefacing the mirror in a time of inequality

So many protests. So many posts. How do we learn so many slogans so fast? I’ll never know. I suppose one or another speaks to each of us, individually, and from there it goes.

“No Justice, No Peace” is the one that calls my name.

After all, I’m a lawyer. Justice is my department, try as I might to wriggle away from that currently uncomfortable fact.

It’s easy to say that “justice” means “criminal justice”, that criminal justice means criminal lawyers, that I am not a criminal lawyer, which is true. I’ve never once appeared in court, even civil court. I pride myself on keeping clients out of the place. But today, that’s just a dodge. In essence: “Not my department.” But it is. My power flows from that system. As do my duties.

Justice personified carries scales in one hand and a sword in the other. She wears a blindfold in between. But the blindfold does not stop the right hand from knowing what the left hand is doing. As lawyers, we know better than most what the police do, the advantages they have, the system in which they operate. Their sword is stained with blood, more than we also took time to see. The blood is all one color, but it comes from some kinds of people more than others. Enough to cast the blindfold under serious doubt.

Sword aside, we know the scales aren’t entirely level. They don’t sit quite straight. Drug policies. Lack of independent prosecution for police misconduct. Broad immunities. Ineffectual rules for general equality. Liability to legalism and other means to game moral injunctions, from outright segregation to racial covenants, over time. In so many cases where the sword has fallen, the scales have bent and twisted to oblige, lending the force of full body to the blow.

For people who aren’t lawyers, there are people who can participate in the system and there is everyone else. They don’t slice and dice the legal profession into specialties, as lawyers do. Nor should they. When a problem affects the legal system, it is, by dint of our privileges, a lawyer problem. Nobody else is allowed to fix it. We have denied the public standing for self-help. We have indulged ourselves in a subculture they do not know and cannot readily penetrate.

In the Roman conception, Justice did not stand alone. She was oft accompanied, even upstaged, by her elder sister, Prudence. The iconography of American law has exalted the image of Justice, the sword and the scales. It has largely forgotten Prudence, in more ways than one. Which is a shame and a moral liability, at the root of current events now come to light.

Prudence was not just a Virtue, but the Mother of All Virtues. It was Prudence, not Justice, that distinguished courage from foolishness, caution from cowardice. It was Prudence that answered the hard moral questions of extent.

In one hand, she carried a serpent, symbol of all worldly trouble. In the other hand, her tool, a mirror. Prudence wasn’t blind. She could see the serpent quite clearly. Through the mirror, she could see also herself.

In times of trouble, blindness is often convenient. A mirror, rarely so. Does our profession, as a whole, lack the virtue for a long, hard look at itself? Do we have eyes to see in reflection what is plain to the society we serve at a glance?

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