Of 'gentle ghosts' and New Year's resolutions

Steven I. Platt, BridgeTower Media Newswires

With the start of the New Year, all of us traditionally hope for a better time than the past year provided us. This year, however, for the first time in my 69-year-old memory, that hope is tempered for many of us by our different takes on the meaning of recent events, including the presidential election. This makes our expectations at best uncertain and at worst not equal to or less than what they have been in the past. Indeed, the perceived prospect of lower economic rewards and the continued politicization of the institutions of all three branches of government casts a bit of melancholy over the celebration of the new year.

With that in mind, and with, I hope, the proper degree of humility, as well as a recognition that our hopes and dreams should not be born out of naiveté or unrealistic expectations, I offer the following suggested New Year’s resolutions for judges, politicians, and policymakers.

We should resolve to understand, as we listen to and see on a daily basis horrifying events, as well as the occasional happy ones, 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 softening the rough edges of our fellow citizens’ lives. It is therefore 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.

We should resolve to remember that life is too powerful to face alone. That means that no one, not a president, senator, general, 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 and respect you, both personally and professionally.

For those of us who have the honor of carrying the title of “judge” before their name, our commitment to values means that we will uphold the tradition of the bench on which we serve to maintain a high level of scholarship. It also means that we will treat every person who appears before us courteously regardless of their station in life and that we will summon the “courage” to do what the law requires, even if that is a course which is not a popular one.
Justice, integrity

Our commitment to values also means that we will maintain our sense of justice and integrity. These two values cannot be separated. A commitment to justice requires that as judges, after listening to the evidence and applying the law to the facts in each case in our courtrooms, we reach beyond that almost mechanical protocol and fully comprehend how our decision will affect the human beings involved in the case. It also requires us to make the effort to appreciate whether that decision is fundamentally fair to each of these people. This, coupled with a commitment to integrity, which requires us not to knowingly do anything that we know to be wrong or to say anything that we know to be untrue, will hopefully bring the result in each case over which we preside as close to justice as is humanly possible.

Finally, we should 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 we continue to take our jobs seriously and ourselves less so. It means that we 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 love 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 the 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 2017 than before. Have a happy and fulfilling New Year!


Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.