What is Justice?

What is JusticeThis past weekend across Chicago, citizens gathered in worship and other settings to remember Emmett Till who was killed 60 years ago.  The groups also commemorated where we are as a society, supposedly characterized by the rule of law and justice. So, what is justice?

As you will recall, Chicagoan Emmett Till was just fourteen years old when he was murdered in a racially-motivated attack in Mississippi, ostensibly because he harassed a white woman. Two white men viciously beat Till, shot him in the head and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. Later, protected by the prohibition against double jeopardy, they admitted in a media interview that they committed the crime.

This past weekend, community and spiritual leaders urged people to not only remember Emmett Till, but to reignite the outrage and activism that his murder unleashed, sparking the civil rights movement in the United States. “We are not a whole lot better than 60 years ago,” said Rev. Michael Pfleger in a recent article published in the Chicago Tribune. “We have no time for passivity, we have no time for apathy, we have no time to become immune.  It’s time to say ‘enough.’” Rev. Janette Wilson echoed those sentiments, saying “we’ve become comfortable in an unhealthy America.”

Emmett Till’s Murder and Our Justice System

So where is the concept of justice in America 60 years after Emmett Till’s murder? Justice or fairness is said by many to form the foundation of our society.

Although few of us are philosophers or ethicists, the notion of fairness, or giving each person what they deserve, permeates our interactions with each other and our government. We want the goods of our society to be distributed in a just way—called distributive justice.  We also want punishments for infractions to be meted out in a just way—called retributive or corrective justice.

According to John Rawls, a philosopher widely known for his book A Theory of Justice, the stability of a group or a society depends upon the extent to which the members of that society feel that they are being treated justly. When some of society’s members come to feel that they are subject to unequal treatment, the foundations have been laid for social unrest, disturbances, and strife. The members of a community, Rawls holds, depend on each other, and they will retain their social unity only to the extent that their institutions are just.

In general, punishments are held to be just to the extent that they take into account relevant criteria such as the seriousness of the crime and the intent of the criminal, and discount irrelevant criteria such as race.

The justice system failed to treat the perpetrators of the murder of Emmett Till fairly.  So for those of us who work in the administration of justice, we must take stock. Have we changed since then? How are we doing in administering justice?

Instability and a Justice System Perceived as Unfair

It seems as if justice is as elusive as ever. The social unrest following the killing of citizens by police officers from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore supports the feeling that not enough has changed with respect removing race from the justice equation.  They also confirm the warning of philosopher Rawl that when there is a perception that the system does not treat people fairly, society becomes unstable.  The fabric of the social contract rends.

The annual Harvard University Institute of Politics public opinion poll of 18 to 29 year olds taken earlier this year provides additional data about this problem.  Asked how confident they were in the U.S. judicial system’s ability to “fairly judge people without bias for race and ethnicity,” 49% said they had “not much” (35%) or “no” (14%) confidence in the fairness of our justice system.  Young whites were more confident in the justice system’s fairness (55% reported either some or a lot of confidence) than young Hispanics (44%). Only 31% of African-Americans reported having either some or a lot of confidence in the justice system to judge people without racial or ethnic bias.

Lawyers Must Strive to Improve the Justice System

So, what is justice. Justice is not a static concept.  Nor is it a promise.  It is an ideal that lawyers must have the courage to pursue. The portrayal of justice as a woman is recognized in statues and art renderings in courthouses across the world.  Lady Justice is blindfolded, representing the impartiality of the law, the ideal that justice should be meted out fairly, without regard to race, identity, wealth or station. This representation is not reality for many. Lawyers should not be content in the status quo.  The people we are sworn to serve certainly are not.







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