I recently attended a continuing legal education seminar on issues of Law and Politics from the perspective of historical political philosophers which reminded me that Crime and Punishment was not just some old book. Some of the thinkers we discussed were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francis Bacon, Emerson and Plato. The ideas of other great writers and thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and even Russian greats such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were interwoven in the discussions.
Most people reading this don’t really care about some old lofty ideals that were thrown around hundreds of years ago. It has nothing to do with their case, right? On a micro-level this is true. But the problem with most people these days is their inability or unwillingness to think on a larger scale which actually does affect their lives. The reason these philosophers still matter is not just because their ideas formed the constitution that governs our lives to this day, but because the thinking they originated is timeless. It is still needed today if we want to prevent government from taking advantage of the little guy who doesn’t have the time or resources to defend himself. That holds true in criminal defense law and in U.S. Government policies.
Here are two examples. Judges in Florida are elected. Many former prosecutors decide to run for judge after many years for a variety of reasons. The people who know them best are the people who work with them daily or have cases pending with them as criminal defense attorneys. Many prosecutors turn out to be great judges. Many transfer their harsh mentality onto the bench and essentially become an “arm of the state”. Most people I have met have no interest in who gets elected as a judge. But if you have the great misfortune of committing a crime intentionally or accidentally, you will now face this person who may have very draconian ideas about crime and punishment – which you will be on the receiving end of. Whether or not they get elected depends on whether or not you vote.
Or take a recent comment of our president that the U.S. Constitution is “archaic”. The comment was clearly made because he isn’t getting everything he wants as a president, from immigration bans to health care reform. But the very nature of this “archaic” document is that it keeps a president from doing and getting everything he wants. It’s called separation of powers and the alternative is called a dictatorship. So taking action in contravention to this “archaic” document triggers rights and duties of other branches of government that prevent a president from doing everything he wants and essentially becoming a king. Do you really want King Trump? And don’t be fooled into thinking that revolutions and uprisings can’t still take place when a leader usurps power, just because a constitution exits. If that constitution gets trampled on and we end up with leaders who act like kings, the same result that led to the writings of these famous authors will take place. It’s called a revolution and people die.
So let’s take a moment and remember that your place in this country, like it or not, is a participant with a whole bunch of people that you like, and don’t like. This group which we call “society” follows certain laws, participates in government, and challenges it based on hundreds of years of experience that involved rotting innocent prisoners and greedy rulers. If you don’t want to end up on the receiving end of a gun barrel (or judge who makes you feel that way), do some reading and remember to go back to our roots so we don’t end up repeating the past.