Friday, July 31, 2009

spirit of the law

Have you ever watched a basketball game where the referees forgot their role? Every little infraction of the rules ,no matter how minor, was whistled, the foul line became busy, and the game became a bore. Despite the fans cry of "just let them play", the referees persisted in their enforcement of the rule, and later were surprised that people complained. They said ,"but the rules are the rules and must be enforced.",forgetting that it was a game people came to see, not a whistle-fest.

Now everybody understands what a travesty that is. But a greater travesty occurs when the "law and order" crowd get their way in the fields of the courts and law enforcement. Then it is not just a game that suffers, it is real people and their lives and livelihoods that are damaged.

Remember that a law is only as good as the reason it was made. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". It was made to provide a rest for mankind, not binders. We must remember why laws were written and judge accordingly. And that a law can't be written to cover everything in specifics , there has to be interpretation and careful application to each case. That is why we have judges, not just legal automatons.

I can think of three instances where insistence on strict,limited law application has harmed our society. One is mandatory sentencing and the "3 strikes" laws. These came from well-meaning individuals but have serious flaws. There are instances of judges excusing criminal activity , but more often I think are cases where the judge is handcuffed. You have to consider first time offenders and repeat criminals differently. And not all felonies are the same, so the 3-strikes laws can handcuff judges as well. Career criminals, shown by lengthy rap sheets, and violent offenders need to be kept in jail to safeguard the public. But there is a whole realm of rehabilitation and restitution, aspects of law that are sorely lacking in our society today. We cannot just "lock 'em up and through away the key". That is madness, financially and otherwise.

Immigration is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed in a separate post, but suffice it to say here that those who cry "but they're breaking the law" about illegal immigration, need to think about their own record and how they themselves would manage if someone caught and prosecuted them on every minor infraction of law -like when they go 5 miles an hour over the posted speed limit?

Finally, in keeping with the continued news over the Supreme Court nominee approval process, what about activism and judicial philosophy on the court? The Constitution is a set of laws, written by good men over 200 years ago in a society that is vastly different from ours. It's principles remain vital, but it must be allowed to live and breath and adapt to continual changes. That is why the Congress is given the "necessary and proper" power. The founders knew that things would change and the government needed the flexibility to adapt. Judges must be mindful of this, as well as remembering their role as guardians of liberty, protecting the rights of the minority against excesses of the majority, against over-reaches by legislative or presidential power. They are a check and balance, not just a rubber stamp for law enforcement. Much more about that whole area later, but this again is an area where the spirit of the law needs to be remembered.

And of course, it all comes back to the golden rule - "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Or as someone else wrote it, before you judge me , walk a mile in my moccasins.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


What is it and why is it important?
Empathy is the capacity to walk in another's shoes, to know by experience what they are feeling and to view things from their perspective. It helps one to comprehend another's actions and to give advice and comfort when needed. It is different from sympathy. You can sympathize with many, basic human compassion, but it takes a shared experience to empathize. For example: I can sympathize with and reach out to care for someone who has lost a child , but I cannot empathize because I have never had a child, let alone lost one.
On the other hand, I can empathize with someone who has lost a parent, because years ago I lost both my parents (at different times) and so I know first hand how it feels. I can help (and have helped) someone walk through the process of grief - and I know that it is a process,not just a one-time deal.Is my degree of caring different in the two cases? No, but my capacity to understand and aid is.

Why is this important? Because today empathy is getting maligned by those who, in my opinion, have no concept of what it means. President Obama stated as one of the desired qualities of a Supreme Court nominee that they be a person who demonstrates empathy. His selection of Sonia Sotomayor has been attacked, because people mistakenly tag empathy as being "code" for bias, prejudice, or giving preferential treatment to minorities. They have taken out of context her "wise Latina" comment. Her comment about a "wise Latina" being a better judge than a white male was in the context of cases involving discrimination on the basis of race or gender. In those cases a "wise Latina" would have a much greater capacity to understand the position of the one alleging discriminaton than a white male judge, because of her personal struggle to overcome discrimination. The better a judge understands the positions of the parties to a case the better they can make a wise decision.

The problem with some people is that they seeing judicial proceedings as simply intellectual exercises, detective processes, or comparative philosophical debates. They fail to see that it involves real people -more on that in another post - and that their decisions have to take into account the effects on those lives as well as the specific points of law. Otherwise real people get hurt.

For Biblical reference - see Hebrews 4:15 - seeking to encourage us the writer says of Jesus - "for we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin"...He knew what it was like to be hungry,thirsty,tired, abandoned, betrayed, slandered, pulled about in every which way and enticed to do wrong -yet he did not yield to it. He , the righteous judge, empathizes with us, yet loves us all equally. That is the model for a judge and I applaud President Obama for the wise choice he has made. Not only is she highly qualified academically (first in her college class, high honors graduate) and career-wise (nearly 17 years on the federal bench, in legal practice of one sort or other for nearly 30 years), but she has overcome barriers of race and gender and seeks to help others do the same.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

thoughts for the day

Thoughts for the day - how much of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion do you see active in your life today?
And, how do you react to issues like AIDS, poverty, immigration(both illegal and legal), and the plight of refugees in the Middle East (and Muslims in general)?
And, thirdly, what do you remember about what Jesus said about the poor, sick, outcasts,foreigners?
Lastly, how do you think He would comment on our words and actions today,were He walking among us as during His earthly ministry? Would He talk to us like He talked to the self-righteous Pharisees, calling out their hypocrisy?
Let us so live that He would be pleased to see His love and life reflected in us toward those less fortunate than we.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

living free

Fear is like weedkiller. When used constructively it can warn you about danger and keep you from doing really stupid and dangerous things, like walking too close the edge of a cliff. There are places along the rim of the Grand Canyon where signs are posted warning people to keep behind the railing. There is a good reason. The rock outcroppings are not the most stable, and there are very severe dropoffs - one is called the Abyss and the drop is 5,000 ft! It is a wise person who follows the rules and stays behind the railing.

But all too often fear is misplaced,used to control people, and becomes paranoia. It is like the person who never goes out of their house because they are afraid something bad will happen. That is no way to live. Like weedkiller, fear can kill initiative ,creativity, life itself, just as weedkilller can kill not only the weeds, but any other beneficial plant it touches -and can poison the water system of a community if used too much. The problem that brings weeds most often is poor soil, and the solution is improving the soil, and making it better able to sustain beneficial plants.

Fear is also like antibiotics, for the same reason. In critical situations, with careful study, they can be used. But all to often they have been used as a blanket cure-all and have two bad effects. One , some bad bacteria develop resistance to the antibiotic , rendering them useless in the future (to all). And they destroy both good and bad bacteria, rendering the person's immune system vulnerable. For this reason many doctors quit prescribing them in many situations and focus on long-term solutions to improve overall health.

So it is with life. Bumps and bruises will happen, but there is great opportunity in living free from fear. Take a few chances, don't let fear close you out. Even in a post-911 world when the constant mantra from many voices is "be afraid, be very afraid" Remember, Jesus said he had come that we might have an abundant life, and that the truth would set us free.:)