Justice or Just Laws


Everyone’s heard about the in-church murder of the abortion provider in Kansas. Only last week, though, an interesting twist arose. The culprit plans to explain why he did it, in an attempt to have the charge against him reduced to voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder.

Naturally, anti-abortion advocates are pleasantly surprised while their opposite numbers are stunned and concerned. The latter understandably fear that the judge, in permitting this, has opened the doors to other nut-cases killing doctors. But there’s more at play here than just some whack job getting off easy.

A little more than a year ago, a college student disrupted the auction of federal oil and gas leases in Utah. That auction was one of the pell-mell giveaways the Bush administration had finagled. The student, an environmentalist, bid for and won many of the leases. Of course his intent was to stop the auction, not actually consummate the purchases. He succeeded, but it turns out interfering with an auction is a felony. He announced that he intended to use a “defense of necessity.” The judge rejected this.

The “defense of necessity” is an argument that says NOT taking the illegal action in question would have caused a far greater evil to society. Effectively, this sounds a lot like the Kansas case to me, where the murderer plans to argue his actions were necessary to protect undelivered fetuses. But, two very different courses have been set by the judges in these trials. (The lyrics from Graham Nash’s “Prison Song” come to mind— “Kids in Texas, smoking grass. Ten year sentence comes to pass. Misdemeanor in Ann Arbor, ask the judges why.”)

The LATimes, in an editorial about this mentions a similar case in 2007, but in Britain, where the defense was allowed. The paper need not have gone so far afield, but a bit further back in time in the Los Angeles area. My now deceased attorney friend, Harold Tamkin, described a case he helped defend some four decades ago. Dozens of protestors had been arrested. The judge wanted the whole lot tried as one case. The defendants acceded to that demand only after they were permitted to mount a “defense of necessity.”

The judges’ differing approaches to the abortion and auction examples clearly results in unfair results. And similar situations might confront us in our ongoing struggle against Turkey. It behooves us as an Armenian community in the U.S. to watch these cases. Just causes can be legitimizing of otherwise inappropriate actions. That’s the underlying premise of civil disobedience. However, this has to be addressed with extreme caution. Things could easily degenerate into kangaroo-court-like circumstances. Judges could then declare, as I’d heard in some post-apocalyptic movie I’ve seen, “this is a court of justice, not law.” We are all endowed with a visceral sense of justice. But in the aggregate, this must be moderated and channeled through laws. That’s why laws usually lag behind society’s current mores. But they are necessary to keeping things consistent and equitable for all.

And, there is hope on the horizon. The U.S. Supreme Court, even as stacked with the right-wing biased justices as the current nonet is, saw the danger to the rule of law in allowing judges who get big money from contributors to their election campaigns to rule on those same contributors’ cases (Caperton vs. Massey).

As with all things human, things evolve, and it’s our job to stay on top of things. Then, we do what we’ve always been good at as Armenians, take what we learn from around the world, and bring it home to Armenia (hopefully United, not just Eastern) to improve governance there.


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