Reserving Judgment

According to the prevailing beliefs of the nation he oversaw, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is himself being judged right now, his good deeds and repentances weighed against his bad calls. There is considerable discussion back here on earth about his lifetime of work and its impact, as well as the usual chorus of do-gooders insistent that to speak ill of the dead is disrespectful. Unlike Scalia, we are told to reserve judgment for a higher authority.

That got me thinking about what judgment is, where it came from and how we appoint those who administer it.

Judge is a middle English word, adapted from the Latin judic- (as in judiciary), which is made up of jus (law) and dicere (say). Jus-dice. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


The word may be relatively new but the concept has been with us, probably forever. Judgment in Australian Aboriginal communities, the longest continuous habitation on earth, could be fierce but fundamentally seems very familiar. Many of the tenets of this tribal law are key parts of the criminal justice system in our modern democracy. Wrongdoers were judged by their peers, who took into consideration the harm done and any efforts they made for restitution. Remedies included compensation, corporal punishment and re-education (in this case, taking the form of initiation).

From the Ancient Greeks, we get the distinction between civil and criminal law, with juries for both … consisting of upwards of 200 people! Well, men. Despite the huge numbers of laypeople required, there was no participation from women. Lame.

Even monkeys have an innate sense of fairness. In a study of brown Capuchin monkeys, known to have strong social bonds, researchers put two subjects side by side but rewarded them differently – with delicious grapes or boring cucumber – for the same task. Unsurprisingly, the monkeys who got the cucumber started acting out, refusing to interact with humans, rejecting their cucumber reward and even throwing it back at them!

So I find it very interesting that many of my countrymen think God is the ultimate judge and that our laws are based on words that come directly from Him. That seems like the opposite of judgment by your peers, and therefore pretty unfair. The Supreme Court is hardly a judgment of peers, either, but at least there are a pantheon of Gods arguing with each other, not unlike the stories from Ancient Greece.

Justice Scalia ruled his corner of the law with a devout Christian faith, a distinctive lack of empathy and absolute certainty that his reading of the Constitution was the correct one. That his understanding of my uterus was the most complete one. That it was fair that victims of child abuse should be forced to face their abusers in court. That two men having consensual sex had no federal right to privacy and should be at risk of a state’s criminalization of homosexuality. And that the second amendment’s reference to a militia actually meant that a person is constitutionally allowed to own an arsenal. Not coincidentally, there are, as of last month, an estimated 300 million guns in America – nearly one for every person, including your angry uncle Jim and my friend’s five-day-old baby.

A jury of his peers would probably say Scalia was wrong about a great many things. To do so is not to speak ill of the dead for no reason, but to judge his tenure and review, learn from our mistakes and move on. That’s justice.

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