This reflection was originally posted on July 13, 2013, following the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
People can be perfectly thoughtless when they choose. As a whole, humanity kills, oppresses, and generally devalues their fellow person. This has been going on for thousands of years—sometimes those individuals who do so manage to avoid any repercussions for their actions, but, as stated in the preamble to our Constitution immediately after the “form[ation of] a more perfect Union,” those who were responsible for the founding of this country did recognize that justice had to be established.
This is what, in an ideal world, should make this country, this community, so great: even when the comfortable thing to do would be to ignore injustice and to write it off using any number of convenient excuses, there are certain things that we cannot stand for. This is the entire point behind having a system of laws: on some basic level, the criminal system is merely an expression of what we think is acceptable and unacceptable. There is almost certainly at least some justification for every substantive and procedural rule that exists on the books. Those justifications may not always be clear, but a rule with a valid but less obvious justification should trump a rule with an obvious but less valid justification.
Are these values always expressed perfectly? Far from it. Those who say that “the system works” and that we should “have faith in it” should be able to concede that a few short words cannot capture the wide variation in fact patterns that might exist that might be the difference between a death penalty, a life sentence without parole, or perhaps an acquittal entirely. To deny this is to deny the disparity between “disparate impact” and “disparate treatment”—actions taken that affect people unfairly versus those actions taken deliberately to affect people unfairly.
Our charge is not to have blind faith in the system and simply excuse any outcome that seems to be strange as “fairly adjudged by the system that we have”. This would be the comfortable thing to do, and yet would be to willingly ignore that any such system will be flawed.
This summer, I have worked on multiple school desegregation cases pursuant to Brown v. Board of Education. For those who maybe aren’t up on their docket-watching in federal district courts in the deep South, there are still many school districts that are resisting the need to follow what is universally taken as the law of the land as provided by our Constitution. Nobody is arguing that Brown was wrongly decided, and yet resistance still exists. Is there any reason to get into these fights, seemingly creating more legal work for ourselves while causing headaches for others? I feel like the answer is obvious. Those people who are negatively impacted by the actions of others deserve some recourse. Why should a school board have the power to isolate students based on their race? The detrimental effects on our children’s educational quality that flow from this have been widely and universally recognized, most importantly by those that have been given the power to stop this from happening.
Why are laws still enacted? Why does the legal system change over time? It is because we realize that the old legal system does not properly deal with what we see, what we experience, and what we expect. This is going to be the case with any prescriptive system. But who effects change on the legal system, and what do they change?
Those of us who feel some discomfort based on the seemingly endless string of developments that mirror tonight’s are not powerless. The current state of affairs is certainly not comfortable, and although there are certain issues for which I am willing to at least somewhat shield myself in order to minimize my discomfort (as nobody can expect to confront every issue), I personally feel much better trying to face this one head-on rather than trying to ignore the nagging feeling that there is an itch I haven’t scratched.
Although I know I cannot expect all of you to agree with me, let alone significantly change your lives in order to follow a similar path, I just want you to recognize your reactions, your outrage, and your concerns. These are the seeds from which progress grows.