Has the American Justice System Failed?

Jonathan Paine

What is Justice?

In America, we have an entire system that is dedicated to this seemingly nebulous concept. We have people dressed in black robes who go by the name “Justice”. Statues have been built in honor of this ideal.

The goal of every good lawyer should be justice for their client.

Before we ask if America’s justice system has failed, we must first ask:

And why does our definition of this foundational term matter?

Justice Defined

Noah Webster was an incredible man who dedicated a huge portion of his life to defining words. He knew 28 languages and his incredibly intensive study into the etymology of words produced “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”. To this day, his definitions are respected as complete and accurate.
In his 1828 Dictionary, Webster defined justice thus:

“The virtue which consists in giving to every one what is his due; practical conformity to the laws and to principles of rectitude in the dealings of men with each other; honesty; integrity in commerce or mutual intercourse.

Justice is distributive or commutative.

Distributive justice belongs to magistrates or rulers, and consists in distributing to every man that right or equity which the laws and the principles of equity require; or in deciding controversies according to the laws and to principles of equity.

Commutative justice consists in fair dealing in trade and mutual intercourse between man and man.”*

Justice is not some nebulous concept. It does have a real, solid definition.

What Justice Looks Like

Law and equity.
These two terms were used a lot in Webster’s definition. And they give us the clearest picture of what real justice looks like. Justice looks like giving someone what they deserve according to the law’s requirements in an equitable (or even) manner.

We’ve all seen a statue depicting Lady Justice.

First thing we notice is that she’s blindfolded (which leads one to question the wisdom of giving her a sword). This symbolizes the fact that justice is impartial. In other words, it is not a respecter of persons.

All are equal under the law.

Second thing we notice is that Lady Justice has a sword (which leads one to question the wisdom of blindfolding her).

This is because justice often carries with it a punishment. This is both a warning for potential lawbreakers, and a harbinger of what is to come for those who have already broken the law.

The final thing we notice is the balanced scales she holds in her hand.

The scale symbolizes the weighing of evidence. Again, we see the equitableness of justice. The decision should not rest on position or power, but rather on the raw evidence.

In America, our justice system was designed in an attempt to make sure that everyone got what they deserved according to the law’s requirements in an equitable manner.

For example, say a person robs a bank and is caught. This case would enter the justice system.

The system would assess the evidence in an impartial manner. Then, based on the applicable laws, each individual would be given what they deserve. In this instance, the bank robber would be given jail time and the robbed bank would be given restitution for their loss.

Justice is served.

Why It Matters

“…the most sacred of the duties of a government, [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” 
~Thomas Jefferson
“Without justice being freely, fully, and impartially administered, neither our persons, nor our rights, nor our property, can be protected.”

~Joseph Story

“The best and only safe road to honor, glory, and true dignity is justice.” 
~George Washington

The belief that America’s justice system has failed to deal out justice is not only false, it takes us down a dangerous road.

Our Constitution begins with, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

Everything about America is centered on this. Without justice, liberty cannot survive. The faith, the belief that justice is the one and only goal of America’s justice system ought to drives us.

America’s justice system is in dire need of leaders who understand what justice really is. It’s no secret that attorneys have a bad name on this count.

The Father of our Country, George Washington had something to say on this subject.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. 

The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.

Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

It Hasn’t Failed. Yet.

Notice how Washington explains that justice itself rests on what kind of leaders and citizens we have.

These days it seems, more often than not, that our leaders are not living up to the standards Washington set forth. For this reason, America’s justice system teeters in the balance.

That’s why I encourage you to check out Patriot Academy.

For 17 years, this organization has been teaching the next generation what it means to be real leaders. Focusing on the foundational principles that underlay our American system, like justice and truth, Patriot Academy is training young leaders how to make a difference in this country.

It’s this kind of leadership that America’s system needs.

Justice and liberty are depending on it.

Check it out at PatriotAcademy.com.

 

*Webster makes clear that there is a difference between “distributive justice” (what lawyers, judges, and the courts are concerned with) and “commutative justice” (the fair dealings between individuals, or people dealing rightly with each other).

Commutative justice is something that each of us should strive to have in our personal lives. We should also try and inspire commutative justice in those around us.

However, when a lawyer is attempting to define justice for themselves and their practice, we would be examining the definition of distributive justice.

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