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February 25, 1999

Is There Justice?

By Andrew Ping, Staff Writer

     BERKELEY - Is there something wrong with our justice system? A lot of us think so. When murderers can get away with it, and our police go on trial for self-defense, then there's certainly a problem.
     The heart of the problem actually lies in the way our political system runs. Political Scientists call it a "Rational-Legal System". What that means is that our leaders are given authority not by custom or tradition, but instead by a certain set of procedures, called elections. Once elected, the official acts within the bounds of the laws, or set of procedures, set up for that office. The individual is replaceable, and loses authority if he steps beyond the limits of his office. The key to doing what an official wants, then, is to twist the interpretation of the bounds set for the office.
     This relates directly to the justice system. Our justice system may also be called "procedural". That is, justice is done if the proper steps are taken, from Miranda rights read to appeal of the judge's decision. Any violation of procedure results in a mistrial, and in many cases in the acquittal of the defendant.
     Skill of the attorney, then, counts more in our system than truth and "gut justice". That is why O.J. Simpson was not convicted; he did not beat or kill his wife, he "tried to physically impose [his] will" on her. Similarly, Clinton was acquitted, because he didn't commit perjury, but rather "exercised his right not to cooperate with his prosecutors." They both played the system well, and beat it.
     This sort of justice, however, is sharply at odds with our sense of what is right and wrong. Criminals should be convicted. Those who clearly have defended themselves should not be arrested for it. This sort of justice may be termed "substantive justice". It's what the American people want. Why else do we constantly mock our lawyers and become outraged with our Courts' decisions?
     One clear illustration was given by Professor Robert Price of the U.C. Berkeley Political Science department. He cited Victims' Rights groups as clear evidence of dissatisfaction with procedural justice. Under the current system, victims have no rights. Instead, the crime is against society and its laws, and prosecution is carried out by the state, not by the injured party. The victim is no more than a witness. Victims' Rights groups show a clear desire for substantive justice, for the guilty to be punished, not for procedure to be followed.
     Does this mean we have to abandon our political system? Certainly not. The way our justice is administered can be revised using the current government. We just have to call for it. We'd need fewer lawyers, our court proceedings would go more swiftly, and judges would have a bit more leeway in getting to the truth. No criminal should be smug and secure in a court of law, and no victim should have to fear the person who caused injury. It's time for a change.
     [Editor's Note: Andrew Ping is a Senior at U.S. Berkeley. His Column View From The Terrace appears weekly in the Bulldog Newspaper, and is carried also by the Fresno Republican, The California Star, and Mother Wire Magazine.]


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