Windows and Mirrors - Just Deserts - Florence Sprague - January 2024

Justice─a powerful and important concept. The word seems straightforward enough, but just try to get three people to agree on what is just in a particular case! Pinning it down can be elusive. Justice means different things to different people, in different eras, in different cultures, by class, by race, by religion….  

What we think of as just may reflect what we think about the structure of our society, but also how we think about human frailty, about personal and societal responsibility, about how to measure harm, about consequences and their functions. 

Where do we place the most value? How do we minimize the role of personal bias in thinking about all of these facets?  

Individual and community positions on these questions are seldom simple and while their evolution may not be quick, neither are they static. Is justice the same as fairness? Is it dependent on what actions are regulated by our laws or are there absolutes? Is it the same as legal? What is the relationship between justice and democracy?  How is justice different in autocracy?  

Our feelings about justice are also deeply entwined with other concepts─retribution and punishment v. rehabilitation, and making the injured whole. Is justice a process or an outcome? What is the role of mercy, and forgiveness, if any? But human behavior is complicated, messy, often self-serving, and as noted, we can’t all agree on what bounds and limits need to be placed or consequented, so our legal system is in continuous evolution. 

The Founders began development of our justice system with the Constitution, and at the federal, state and local levels the legal system has continued to develop in an effort to reflect the principles and ideals we espouse and to support a functioning community. The foundations of our laws are tied to English Common Law, and in some states to the Napoleonic Code of France. We are imperfect and so are our systems, but we keep working on them. 

Did you know that the United States District Courts in Minneapolis and St. Paul host Justice and Democracy Centers? The Center at the Warren E. Burger Federal Building on Robert Street in St. Paul opened last fall and is worth a visit. Who works in a courtroom? How is a trial run? Who are some of the important figures whose names we should learn? What is the history our rights? How would I, personally, interpret the evidence in a hypothetical case, if I was the judge?   

In addition to interactive exhibits and activities, there are online lesson plans for teachers, Scout days, a blog and more to come. When I visited in September, the special exhibit featured the racist lynchings in Duluth in 1920. Among future planned topics are women and the law, tribal law and sovereignty, immigration stories and the LGBTQ legal experience. 

This public outreach can be a valuable tool in helping community members to better understand the principles on which our legal system is based, the mechanics of how it operates, the history of justice in this country and more. The more we understand, the better we can identify where we do not live up to our aspirations and work to make the justice system more just.