COMMENTARY: Court is about justice, not vengeance

by Jan 14, 2020OPINIONS





I always feel like I need to provide you with a disclaimer for my commentary writings because I don’t write my opinion pieces by consensus. I had a supervisor who wanted to revise my commentaries and insert their personal position early in my tenure. When that would occur, I would withdraw the piece. It is for the same reason that I am very reluctant to modify any letter to the editor or commentary that comes to me for print. 

I believe wholeheartedly that we, the people, need an outlet and need to be able to put our views before our community without being censored by the government and/or by an overzealous editor or editorial board.  I will never presume to speak for you. I don’t presume to speak for the One Feather either. That is why you saw me stop referring to my commentaries as editorials. End of disclaimer. 

Why do democracies or representative republics have three branches of government? It is to help ensure that separation of powerful functions are accomplished and tyranny doesn’t have a place to gain a foothold in a society. A lawmaker should not be charged with law interpretation, and a law interpreter should not be a law enforcer. Having a triune governing system with clearly segregated powers is the protection for the people that are governed. 

A critical branch of any government is the judicial branch, which is the branch that is charged with law interpretation. The judicial branch, in most governments, acts much like a referee in team sports. For the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, that would include settling disputes between citizens and between the two other branches of government – Tribal Council (legislative) and the Executive Office. 

Council creates laws. Executive enforces laws. The Court ensures ethical and correct application of the law. At least that is how it is designed to work. If humans were perfect, we would have no worry about injustice, but…we are not perfect by a long shot. The law is impartial. We are not. We are biased. We are emotional. 

When we have been wronged, many times we want more than justice, we want retribution. We want vengeance. And we are quick to look for vengeance, sometimes long before we are sure who has wronged us. 

Because of our emotion, we can be caused to use an unbalanced scale of justice in life. If someone wrongs you and your family, I might say that you need to have forgiveness and compassion in your heart. If someone wrongs me and my family, I might tell you to mind your own business if you mention forgiveness and mercy. And that is why we have opted, as a people, to have our government. We need; we want justice for all. 

There is no doubt that there is pain and suffering for victims and their families. There are also innocent people who suffer beyond those directly involved. 

I have had occasion to observe a few Cherokee Tribal Court sessions in the last few weeks. I have watched men and women escorted into the courtroom from our jail in the shirts and pants with big white and black stripes. I have seen them scoot across the floor of the courtroom because they are shackled, their arms unable to reach to a tabletop because their arms are chained to a belt around their waists. Some smile and try to look cool while others look like they appear to understand the reality that losing your freedom, even if only for a few hours, is a serious thing and not very cool at all. 

The judge and lawyers wade through many cases and situations in a day. As I sat there one day last week, I noticed a couple come in and take a seat in the audience. Apparently, the gentleman was there to have his case heard, but while they waited, one of the police officers in the courtroom stepped over and asked the lady with him to come out of her seat. When she did, the officer placed her in handcuffs and led her out of the courtroom. She must have had an unresolved issue in addition to her young man. 

Then, I noticed, in the left corner of the courtroom near the jury box where the prisoners were sitting waiting for their cases, a small huddle of people. There is a barrier between the public and the working area for the judge and court. At that barrier was a lady holding an infant. On the other side was a young lady in the striped uniform and shackles. She was crying and staring at the baby. After a few moments, one of the police officers came closer to the huddle and apparently gave permission for the lady in chains to hold the child. She gently held and kissed the baby. After a few moments, she handed the baby back across the barrier and returned to await her case to be heard. 

It was a very human moment. The pain of poor decisions that shackles the guilty, and as a byproduct, a child suffers the longing for a loved one that is not there. Then, a moment of compassion, a brief reprieve from the necessary impartialness of the law – when an officer acknowledges that there is collateral damage when people make poor decisions. It is easy for us to forget in our righteous anger at being wronged that all of us are prone to not count the cost of our actions on others, particularly our family members who must live with consequences of misbehavior. We also forget a saying that our grandparents reminded us of often, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  

We need courts to arbitrate, clarify, and keep us just. These are the better part of our humanity. Maybe we should learn from that; be a little less biased, try to wait for all the facts available before we judge, and make ethical assessments. And hopefully, like the judge and the police officer, we will know when to temper justice with compassion. 

Postscript: I received an email from our colleague Holly Kays announcing that she will be having a book signing for her latest release, “Trailblazers & Traditionalists: Modern Day Smoky Mountain People”. I was breaking fast in downtown Hazelwood near Blue Ridge Books on Saturday and picked up a copy. I gave it a quick once-over. I think you will really enjoy her work. It is a compilation of interviews she has done over her years in our backyard. Relevance to you, you might ask? Well, she chatted with some folks you may know, like Ella Bird, Myrtle Driver Johnson, Jerry Wolfe, Shirley Oswalt, and Gil Jackson. There are many more, but those are the most likely to have been your next-door neighbors. 

Ms. Kays would like the pleasure of your company at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Feb. 1. She will be there from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. She will be doing selected readings from her book and, of course, signing copies for those of you who buy one, and you should. I bought mine already autographed, but I may take it with me on Feb. 1 and get it personalized. Go early, City Lights has a great selection of books and periodicals, including the most current edition of the Cherokee One Feather (insert smiling emoji here).