An end never to be achieved and never to be abandoned.

It took longer than usual for me to be excused from jury duty this week—so long in fact that I thought I might actually have to serve.

The judicial system’s love of law—even at the expense of justice—is really quite an amazing thing to behold. But if law could ever be adequate, they could put a computer in the jury box and send the jurors home. They might use a random number generator for a bit of whimsy. The fact of our presence there is acknowledgment that law is at best a distortion and all too frequently a perversion of the social agreements humans need to coexist.

The jury institutionally exists to resist arbitrary decrees of monarchy or the unfair demands of creditors.[1] And it is in law that judges and lawyers seek to reaffirm that power of elites—including that very narrow class of mostly white males who pass the laws—over others.

This preference for law—the black and white of words printed in books—serves an admittedly pragmatic purpose. Fairness and justice concepts are fuzzy concepts that sound good in the abstract, but are much more difficult to pin down in practice. George Lakoff picks apart the concept of fairness, for example, and shows how the application of different conceptions of fairness can yield very different distributive results.[2] And even when juries have deviated from law, they have not always done so to promote justice.[3]

Still, I am reminded of a professor in a class I attended this spring, who repeatedly cited Jewish tradition in explaining that justice is an end which can never be achieved, but must never be abandoned.[4] It’s a high calling, much higher than the base patriotism to which the judge and workers in the jury assembly room appealed in seeking to motivate us to serve as jurors. And we all need to work a lot harder on it—both inside and outside of the courtroom.

  1. [1]James Oldham, Trial by Jury: The Seventh Amendment and Anglo-American Special Juries (New York: New York University, 2006).
  2. [2]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  3. [3] Oldham, Trial by Jury.
  4. [4]Richard Shapiro, “Secular/Post-Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought,” California Institute of Integral Studies, Spring 2011.

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