As the New Year approaches, I welcome the opportunity to break from my recent monthly commentary on the causes of the divisive and destructive state of our politics to reiterate some New Year’s resolutions that I offered for myself and others several years ago.
I do so not out of naiveté and hopefully not unrealistic expectations. It is my hope that those of us who serve the public will at least reflect on these resolutions and strive to carry them out to the best of our ability. In that way, each of us can contribute to improving our own, as well as our fellow citizens’, personal, professional, political and civic lives. With that in mind, here goes.
I resolve to understand — as I listen to and see things on a daily basis in my job that are truly horrifying, as well as occasionally happy — that the law can and should attempt to make things right. However, the law is usually limited, as are judges, legislators and even executives, in what can be accomplished.
Specifically, we are usually confined to imposing a small quantum of order and predictability on the vagaries of our existence and to softening the rough edges of our fellow citizens’ lives. It is important for all of us to remember that for many people, life remains at least at times bewildering, unpredictable and, for some of our less fortunate fellow citizens, frightening.
Behave with respect
We should resolve to remember that life is too powerful to face alone. That means that no one, not a president, not a senator, not a general and not a prosecutor, defense attorney or even a judge, can live or work successfully without a commitment to other human beings and to values. A commitment to other human beings means that you are obliged to behave with respect, as well as concern, toward the people who need you and respect you, both personally and professionally.
As a judge, my commitment to values means that I will uphold the tradition of the bench on which I serve to maintain a high level of scholarship. It also means that I will treat every person who appears before me courteously, regardless of their station in life, and that I will summon the ”courage” to do what the law requires, even if that is a course that is not a popular one.
My commitment to values also means that I will maintain my sense of justice and integrity. These are two values that I did not think can be separated. A commitment to justice requires that I, as a judge, after listening to the evidence and applying the law to the facts in each case in my courtroom, reach beyond that almost mechanical protocol and fully comprehend how my decision will affect the human beings involved in the case. It also requires me to make the effort to appreciate whether that decision fundamentally fair to each of these people.
This, coupled with a commitment to integrity, which requires me to not knowingly do anything that I know to be wrong or to say anything that I know to be untrue, will hopefully bring the result dictated by me as a judge in each case as close to justice as is humanly possible.
Finally, I resolve to remember that perhaps the most important New Year’s resolution that a judge or anyone else can make in both their professional and personal lives is to be a decent human being and to maintain a sense of humor. That requires that I continue to take my job seriously and myself less so.
See the irony and mirth
It means that I must try at all times to see the irony and on occasion the mirth in most situations. It also, perhaps most importantly, means remembering the words of the lawyer Reverdy Johnson in the play “The Trial of Mary Surratt.”
“We have struggled through centuries of ignorance and terror to where life is made secure and worth living, by a faith in justice.
“Far greater than anything man has wrought from his surroundings is that concept of justice. He may lose his belief in God and still find life endurable. He can be robbed of his faith in live and the goodness of man and still survive. But render justice meaningless and you destroy the last of his faiths.
“In self-defense, he must return back to violence for survival. This room is filled with a million ghosts. The dead and the unborn plead for a just world. It has been over two thousand years since we were told that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor justice to the innocent. Is that to be the hopeless law of life?
“Surely, we have made a little progress in all those years. Surely, justice can be the reward of the innocent. I beg you to pause — to listen above the cries for vengeance and to hear the voices of these gentle ghosts.”
We should all listen to the voices of our “gentle ghosts” at least a little more in 2012 than before. Have a happy and fulfilling New Year.
Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected].