What I Saw While Serving on a Grand Jury (part two)
Oct 21, 2019
Community in Mission
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about my experience serving on a grand jury, describing in particular the darkness we jurors had to face each day as we listened to testimony about and video of some horrible crimes. In today’s piece, I’d like to point out some light I saw in the midst of that darkness, some positive elements of my experience.
For much of my life I have looked somewhat askance at lawyers, despite the fact that my father was a lawyer, and a good one at that. (I also enjoy lawyer jokes – all in good fun, of course.) I had this vague impression that lawyers just make everything difficult. The lawyers with whom I come into contact in the Church warn us about so many things that I sometimes cynically remark that if we took every one of their precautions, we’d never open our doors. However, their cautions are usually well-founded given our litigious society. Then, too, there are the ambulance chasers whose advertisements seem to be everywhere. There are also lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits knowing that it’s easier for companies to settle out of court than to fight back. Such things give the profession a bad reputation even though most attorneys do not engage in such practices. Those were some of the biases I harbored when I was summoned.
There I was at the beginning of grand jury duty, unsure of what to expect, when in walked the first of many Assistant U.S. Attorneys I would meet over the next several weeks. I must say that I was impressed by every one of them; they were consummate professionals who had obviously done a lot of meticulous work assembling the cases. In the initial stages of an investigation, these attorneys work closely with the police to examine evidence. They interview many witnesses in their office before ever setting foot in the grand jury room. Witnesses are not always cooperative and some even fail to appear. Their testimony is not always clear and must be disambiguated. Further, witnesses sometimes contradict one another as they recall a traumatic event. Even the victims themselves can be uncooperative due to the fear of repercussions from testifying or supplying information. I can only imagine how difficult and painstaking the attorneys’ work is. Surely it requires great dedication, patience, and perseverance. I was also impressed with their command of the facts in each case, especially considering that they work on numerous cases simultaneously.
In the grand jury room, I was taken by the great respect the attorneys showed for the law while at the same time treating the victims and their families compassionately. Their presentations were well-organized and focused on the evidence. They carefully led the witnesses through what was often gut-wrenching testimony with gentleness, empathy, and understanding. At no time did I see any of them being overzealous. These attorneys have earned my respect and I am grateful to them for all that they do.
Another thing I appreciated during my service was becoming deeply immersed in one of the last bastions of reason and order in our society. In recent years, our culture has experienced an almost complete loss of reason and clear meaning. We are currently in a desert of existentialism, in which individuals define their own meaning because they believe there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning to human existence. This has led to the current bizarre idea that a man can declare himself to be a woman or a woman can declare herself to be a man – and that the rest of society must accept such declarations as fact. It’s hard to have a good argument, let alone a conversation, when basic terms and realities are no longer a given.
The legal world, however, is still steeped in reason and careful, precise definitions. For example, what it means to “possess” a weapon and what is meant by “intent to kill” are precisely defined. The conditions under which charges can be enhanced due to prior convictions must meet strict, definitive criteria. The specifics of a firearm, down to the length of the barrel and the capacity of the ammunition clip, play an important role in applying the law. Jurors and judges in trials are expected to evaluate the evidence and testimony with respect to the law and then draw a well-reasoned conclusion.
In legal proceedings there is the careful assessment of what is meant by a particular crime and what the law provides in terms of adjudication and outcomes. I am not making a case for legal positivism (i.e., whatever the law says is good or right) but merely remarking that we grand jurors were provided with clear definitions and instructions on how to evaluate the evidence and testimony before us.
Hearing the word “reason” used again and witnessing the precision of language and meaning was refreshing. It was almost like stepping back in time a few decades, to a time when words still had clear meanings and basic moral norms were accepted. Even if we didn’t live perfectly moral lives, we knew when the moral law was broken and did not commonly call good or no big deal what God calls sinful.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that law is an ordinance of reason for the common good (Summa Theologica I IIae 90.1). As an ordinance of reason, the law binds people to the reasonable limits it sets forth. The very word “law” comes from the Latin word ligere, which means “to bind.” Law, properly understood, concerns reason, order, and limits we must all accept to enjoy the greatest freedom. The only true freedom is limited freedom. Consider the dangerous chaos that would ensue if we did not limit our freedom to drive by following agreed upon traffic laws.
While we on the jury were looking into a world of chaos and disorder, our attention was always drawn back to the world of reason and order. Lawyers are agents of stability in this milieu, where the rule of law is still important, and words and reality still matter.
I was not born yesterday; I realize that the courts have also been infected with existentialism and the political correctness that is its offspring. This is especially evident at the higher levels of the judicial system, where unelected activist judges “legislate from the bench” and find new rights in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once ignominiously wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). There you have it – pure existentialism. The right of people to define their own meaning and their own concept of existence is not a path to liberty but to chaos and anarchy. This is increasingly the case in our society today.
At the lower levels of the judicial system, reason, law, and objectivity are still the meat and potatoes of the daily work. At its best, our legal system is one of the last sectors of our society in which reason and the application of clear definitions are still evident. My grand jury experience made me deeply aware of this. It was uplifting and encouraging and was not a light I expected to see within the darkness.
I have new respect for the criminal justice system. In this antinomian and politicized age, it is a popular whipping boy. Though no system is perfect, I came away impressed with its thoroughness and fairness. Prosecutors don’t just prosecute criminals; they also work to secure justice for victims and their families and to protect the common good. Defense attorneys play a critical role as well. The attorneys do all this within the careful confines of the law, which seeks to protect the rights of both the accused and the victims.
Thank You, Lord, for the good and hard work of those in our criminal justice system, many of whom labor behind the scenes. Often, they must deal with the worst of crimes and endure frustrating setbacks, yet they persevere in their work. Thank you too, Lord, for the rule of law that You have given us over the centuries. May we protect it from the erosion by existentialism and relativism. May our law be just and in perfect accord with Your eternal law. May the rights and dignity of every person, accused and victim, be upheld and honored. True justice can only be Your work. May all of us, especially those who are lawyers, judges, and jurors be instruments in Your hand.
This song speaks of the sadness of existentialism and relativism. While it idealizes the past, it does point out that we have lost something important.