17 December 2014

Justice without justice?

James Coll is both a college professor and a police detective. He's written an op-ed for the Albany Times Union asking whether justice was served in the decisions by grand juries not to indict policemen who killed unarmed men in New York and Missouri this year. The protest slogan, "No justice, no peace," he writes, begs the question of what justice really is. Coll thinks he has an answer, but it's unlikely to satisfy the protesters. In short, he rejects any notion of justice that isn't embedded in law. Noting that the Constitution was drafted to "establish justice," among other objectives, Coll assumes that the Constitution, as amended over time, does just that. This compels him to a predictably liberal conclusion, in the classical sense: justice under the law in the U.S. is essentially procedural. Justice is not to be understood as a substantive result. On this reasoning, there was due process in both of the recent controversial grand jury proceedings, as justice requires, but justice does not demand a specific result, as the protesters appear to insist. On one level, this is logical: you may not have gotten the result you want, but that alone doesn't make the process unjust. However, Coll himself is guilty of a fallacy when he interprets the protesters' demand for justice as simply something they want. I don't think he'd say that the protesters want "justice" the way someone wants a car for Christmas, but that's what he says in effect. "There will always be those who care little about facts," he writes, implicitly describing the protesters. It's obvious, however, that the protesters care very much about one fact in particular: unarmed men, blacks in particular, are being killed by police. As far as Coll is concerned, presumably, that fact is mitigated by other facts grand juries are bound to consider. The alternative, he warns, is a legal system "subject to the influence of public opinion." In the end, he abandons the idea of justice by reminding readers that "we have a legal system, not a justice system." What he means, in the context of what came before, is that we can expect no more justice than the legal system allows.

Coll must have lost his train of thought somewhere after reminding us that the Constitution is meant to establish justice. He can argue that the legal system isn't the same as a "justice system," but that doesn't mean that the country doesn't have one. Instead, our justice system is our electoral system, through which the people establish justice by choosing representatives to make laws. There would be no disregard for any facts in a demand for changes in the law to make police more accountable for killing unarmed people. If that's what the protesters are demanding, Coll really has no complaint against them. It would be another thing if the protesters are only demanding that somebody prosecute those cops for something now, but if the protesters really hope to accomplish anything I hope they know that they need to change the law. I don't know if Coll would think it unjust to change the law to increase police accountability, but if he does I'd like to know the facts that would make him think so. In any event, while we live under a rule of law -- except when we disobey a policeman, that is -- we also have a right to say the law is wrong, especially when we have the facts to back us up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"expect no more justice than the legal system allows."

Again, looking in particular at the grand jury in Missouri, the DA acted more like he was trying to prove the cop was innocent. That is not what is job is. His job is to use all the evidence to get the jury to decide there is reason for a trial. Personally, I think an ANY case where a person dies, there should be no grand jury. There should simply be a trial. And cops should NEVER be allowed to fire upon civilians until they are fired upon first. That should be in the Constitution.