The scene is classic in American westerns: the alleged criminal awaits trial in the local jail when a mob of angry citizens, often with torches aflame, storms the jail to impose their chosen form of justice, that is, the criminal at the end of a rope. The mob acts as prosecutor, jury and executioner. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic courtroom drama in which Atticus Finch (played in the 1962 movie by Gregory Peck) sits with a shotgun in his lap outside the county jail where his client awaits trial, a black man accused of raping a white girl in the Depression-era South. He deftly holds off the mob, shaming them to go home to their families and allow the system of justice to take its rightful course.
In light of the mob storming the Nation’s Capitol, the citadel of democracy, on Jan. 6, has much changed in the past nearly 90 years since the setting of that movie? Every night on dozens of cable television shows, and even more so on social media, pundits promote violence to achieve their ends. We saw the violence at a rally in Charlottesville a few years ago. What has changed?
The recently-appointed U.S. Attorney-General put it well this week, “The rule of law is not just some lawyer’s turn of phrase. It is the very foundation of our democracy.”
The American system of criminal justice is not without its flaws. Yet at its foundation is the principle that we are governed by laws, not the whim of people, whether a mob of thousands or millions, or a runaway prosecutor or police officer, or an entrenched dictator. We sometimes become frustrated that the judicial system operates slowly and methodically. Unlike a television mystery, court proceedings do not reach a conclusion within 60 or 90 minutes.
During jury selection the judge always asks the prospective jurors these important questions: (1) Would anyone have difficulty accepting or following the rules of law that: The defendant is presumed to be innocent? The state has the burden of proof? The state must prove each charge beyond a reasonable doubt? The defendant does not have to prove his innocence? The jury must be unanimous in its verdict?; (2) Do you understand that, if selected as a juror, each of you must decide this case solely on the evidence produced in court and the law as I give it to you, and not on the basis of bias, passion, prejudice, or sympathy?; and (3) Do you understand that you must follow the law as I give it to you, even though you think the law is, or should be, different?”
If a juror is not willing to follow the law as instructed, they are excused. I often wonder if jurors are being truthful when, by their silence, they confirm that they will follow these rules of law. Only rarely does a juror admit that they believe that the defendant must be guilty of some crime otherwise they would not be in the courtroom standing trial. These rules of law are not just lofty ideals to which we aspire. They are the very foundation of our freedoms, guaranteed by our federal and state Constitutions. Jurors, judges, legislators, governors, and presidents swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. They must follow the rule of law, not the “rule of the mob” (public opinion).
Sept. 17 was celebrated as Constitution Day in the U.S., a day to reflect on the precious freedoms we hold dear in this country, freedoms protected for over 240 years at great cost. Please take a moment to appreciate our Constitution, our judicial systems, and our freedoms.
JUDGE STEVE HALSEY, Wright County District Court, is chambered in Buffalo and is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.”