This Is Who We Are
Dec. 24, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Ralph Gants, gave a beautiful speech to the Islamic Society of Boston. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are the best parts:
The purpose of a Declaration of Rights [the Massachusetts equivalent of the Bill of Rights] is to protect the rights of the minority, of those who are unpopular, even perhaps despised because of who they are, or where they came from, or what they believe, or what they have done. The popular majority does not much need a Declaration of Rights; they have the Legislature to protect them. We in our judiciary recognize our obligation to enforce those rights where they are abridged, regardless of whether it is popular to do so, sometimes knowing it will not be popular to do so. And, based on what I know about our Attorney General, Maura Healey, and our District Attorney, Dan Conley, I am confident that they will stand with you to prosecute cases where your civil rights have been violated. And, based on what I know about our bar associations — the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association, there are attorneys who will help you to protect your civil rights, even for those who are too poor to afford to pay them. In short, you have a Constitution (two Constitutions) and, if the need were to arise, you should not be afraid to use them.
This is the ideal that every one of us who has the privilege to carry a law license should strive for, every day of our lives. Because this is a criminal defense blog, we often focus on the broken parts of the justice system. Once in a while, though, (say, around Christmas and the New Year), it’s nice to see speeches like this; if for no other reason than to remind us what “fixed” looks like.
Justice Gants went on to say:
I also bring you a second message, not so much in my role as Chief Justice, but as someone who is very old and a Jew. The Old Testament many times reminds us, “Once we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and that line is the centerpiece of the Jewish holiday of Passover. I think of that phrase often, because I know that once my forefathers were strangers in the land of the United States, as were the forefathers of nearly all of us, and many of us were not so welcome here.
So I hold firm to the hope that, if we remember who we are and where we came from and what we once endured, if we remember that we, too, once were strangers in the land of Egypt, the vast majority of Americans will stand arm-in-arm with Muslim-Americans and, together, we will get past these troubling times. And until that happens, we still have our Constitution and our rule of law to protect us, and lawyers, prosecutors, and judges prepared to apply those laws to ensure our rights.
I’m Criminal defense attorneys are often accused by my wife the public of being stuffy and self-righteous about our jobs. It’s an occupational hazard at times, but there’s a reason for it. We are the first line of defense, the guys staring down a tank as it bears down on our clients, armed with nothing but a shopping bag and what’s between our ears. Prosecutors and police see themselves similarly, protecting the good guys from the bad guys. (Of course, they get actual tanks.) Judges also try to live up to their ideal: blindfolded, with the scales of justice in one hand and the sword of punishment in the other.
And we all fight it out, case after case, day after day, year after year. And often it doesn’t work all that well, sometimes because of actual malice but more often because the system has evolved some perverse incentives. So we fight about that, too, and occasionally make some progress. But it all comes back to what Justice Gants said: until we all come together to join hands and sing carols around the Festivus pole; we’re it. Until there are no more grievances left to air, the law is all stands between us and anarchy, or worse. In the meantime, lawyers have the heavy burden, and the proud privilege, of serving the law. That’s what Justice Gants reminded us of, and calls us to live up to.
So, yes, the justice system must improve. That’s why we’re here. But when things look the worst, think about this: a Jewish judge gave that speech, in a mosque, in colony founded by Protestant dissidents which came to be dominated by Irish Catholics without the necessity of a civil war. Tiny Tim had it right: God bless us, every one.