On Justice

I’m a big fan of Law and Order — the television show’s that’s been running for almost twenty years.  I watch it religiously.  It never gets old.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch a rerun I’ve seen dozens of times.  The thing is, I couldn’t remember what happened in it — I know what the opening was all about, I knew where the case was going to lead, but the core principles I couldn’t recall.  So I watched it again to find out what they were.

I was glad I did.  The main theme of the show was justice vs. politics.  In a nutshell, it’s the show where a man who organizes tours, in a moment of weakness, shoots at his travel agent to stop her from depositing a cheque.  The idea is just to wound her, to give him time to put the money in his bank account.  The plan works, all too well.  The travel agent deposits the cheque late and the cheque doesn’t bounce — but two other people are killed as a result of the shooting, and the man is caught and charged.

So that’s the small story  The big story is this  While Jack McCoy and Jamie Ross are proposing to charge the man with first degree murder, District Attorney Adam Schiff orders them to indict the man on second degree murder. His argument?  The perpetrator was criminally negligent, but it was not his intention to kill. In the DA’s judgment, the man deserves to go to jail for life, but his crime doesn’t meet the standards required for the death penalty.  The Governor of New York disagrees, and orders Schiff to charge the man with first degree murder — he’s just reinstated the death penalty, and is looking for reasons to use it.  Schiff refuses, the Governor removes him from the prosecution, and Schiff takes the Governor to court.

Now.  Let’s not get caught up in the outcome of that episode.  It’s not really relevant, anyway.  What struck me as I watched the episode was the way in which democracy works in the United States of America.  The courts are independent of the politicians; justice holds a higher standard than political expediency.  The Governor’s action was political in nature and in intent; the DA’s response was in the interests of justice.

What struck me even further is how rarely we see that kind of dialogue taking place here in The Bahamas.  Oh, it has happened, all right, most recently when Justice Lyons challenged the actions of the former Attorney-General.  But Justice Lyons is not a Bahamian, and he has no stakes in the outcome, really.  Where, I wonder, are our national crusaders for justice?

Most of the time, apparently, they’re absent.  Too often it seems that the only values that we truly hold in this nation, the only values in which we’re willing to invest, are values that have selfish returns.  A visitor to The Bahamas who takes time to follow our news will realize that there are really only one main topic of conversation: variations on the theme “we’re better than them”.  We discuss it when we’re talking about party politics, about immigration, about homosexuals, about Junkanoo groups.  Bigger issues, like the question of (say) justice for all, rarely surfaces.

The situation becomes most acute when the question of justice is at odds with our main topic of conversation.  If we’re trying to score points — whether they are PLP points or Saxon points or straight-people points or Christian points or Bahamian points — the idea of justice rarely crosses our lips.

Recently, though, I had the pleasure of reading an article that addressed just that — the question of justice, rather than the question of expediency or political preference or moral superiority.  The topic was the question of a settlement for the Sea Hauler victims, and what the government’s obligation was to them.  The current response of the government is interesting me deeply, as the Sea Hauler was one of the side issues that was raised during last year’s election campaign.  What’s been fascinating me is that though the party in power has changed, the government’s response to the issue has remained essentially the same.  The problem is a private one; the owners of the two boats are liable; the victims need to collect their compensation from them.

Now I must admit I have tended to hold that view.  Working in the civil service has exposed me to the over-reliance that many of us have on “government”, and the expectations — most of them unreasonable — that ordinary citizens have of public servants and politicians.  Government is regarded as the solver of every problem, the mender of every broken thing, the financier of every project of which its citizens dream.  The Government was not at fault in the Sea Hauler tragedy, I reasoned.  Make the private companies accountable.  Let them pay.

But — as Leandra Esfakis, the lawyer who is changing my mind about Bahamians and justice, argues — that is not all there is to it.  After all, it is the government is not entirely blameless.   It is the government who licenses the private companies, and who is responsible for overseeing the safety of the services they provide.

And so, in the interests of justice, the government should pay compensation, she argues.   Not because it is the government’s responsibility to do so, but because the government is far better placed to collect what is owed from those who are at fault than the victims of the tragedy themselves.   Her suggestion is as follows:   the government should compensate the people concerned, and then the government should make the owners pay.   In that way, justice will be best served.  Those who are most affected will be able to have their needs addressed, and those who are responsible will pay.

It’s an interesting proposal, and one I admire.  It’s also heartening.  For the ultimate focus in this discussion is not blame, or political expediency, or even Pilate-like washing of hands, but justice.

About time, too.

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