Sunday, January 16, 2011
I was innocent—honest.
So when I clopped into the court house this past June, I had every confidence—-that flimsy commodity we whip out when we want something to go our way—-that justice would prevail.
I had almost wet my pants when the officer pulled me over for a 6-month-expired registration: my first brush with the law. I had no idea that it was due for renewal on my birthday in December. And I was almost positive that one of those DMV courtesy reminders had never come in the mail.
So, at the prodding of many well-meaning and court-savvy friends, I brought my little law-abiding self downtown to the court house, walked through the metal detectors, and settled very conspicuously into the motley crowd of petty felons waiting just outside the courtroom doors.
I wedged myself into a corner, as far away from the long haired, heavily tattooed man looking very much as if he needed a cigarette.
Though I didn’t mean to, I think I sniffed my disdain-—no need for a trial; they were probably all guilty. I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only one wearing professional clothing. Most had dropped in from work in their mud-caked boots, scrubs, or grunge. I had dressed to the nines as someone suggested—-black sweater, tweed skirt, and my very high black blister-factory heels.
Finally, the bailiff opened the doors and issued us into the room. I took a seat on the bench, crossed my high-heeled leg daintily and waited, moving ever so slightly to let the scraggly, tat covered cig craver step over my legs to sit in the seat next to me.
I watched as one by one the officers walked in the front door of the room, each of them scoping out who had called them away from their normal routine. I tried not to look at the masculine female cop who had her hair pulled back into a tight pony tail just as she had on the day that she strutted up to my window. I tried to think the best of them. Tried to ignore the comments I had heard about how cocky these law enforcers were. Tried to think of them as the human beings I had seen on CSI and Law and Order—-public servants with understanding, uncynical hearts.
When at last every cell phone user had been exposed, and the bailiff had finally persuaded the shoeless black woman out of the room, the judge walked in. I noticed at once a fact that settled my stomach a bit—-he looked very much like Tom Bergeron from AFV.
Each defendant that stepped up to the stands was clearly evading his just dues, lying through his teeth, holding out hearsays, keeping back facts, and losing his composure. I kept my eyes on my wrist watch, remembering an hour into the thing that I only had 2 hours on the parking meter. What irony to walk out of this to find another ticket on my car. Silently, I willed the bailiff to cart the rest of the people out of the room and into the nearest cell for cronies. Could they arrest someone for stupidity? Surely there is a place somewhere in this great land of equal opportunity where an idiot can be incarcerated for no crime other than being an idiot.
But the courts of justice listened to the man in the Hawaiian shirt who had brought in a lawyer to defend him against a 20 dollar parking fine. And to the tattoo guy who stormed out of the room with curses, promising that he would be back with his lawyer.
When the bailiff called me forward, my hands started shaking. My voice went quiet, and I tried not to exude a brittle confidence like those retards who think they’re actually on Judge Judy’s good side until she calls them down. I approached the podium, barely able to see over it, my voice seeming diminutive, tinny, almost annoying as I forced my words above a whisper to take the oath and state my argument.
Tom blinked, almost kindly, staring over his glasses at me. “I’ve lived here my whole life and they’ve always sent out courtesy reminders. I’m going to keep the fine at 114 dollars. Plus the 20 dollar court cost.”
I blinked back at him. It was quick and painless. In fact, I didn’t even realize that he had called me a liar until I was outside in the heat.
Mentally, I kicked every friend and relative who had encouraged me to take my case to court. In my simplistic little mind I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t have believed me, if for nothing else my shaky hands and airy voice and clearly innocent eyes.
I had taken an oath, for crying out loud. Did I look like a perjurer? Why in the world would he have dismissed my testimony as a lie—
My self-righteous steps slowed a little bit as I remembered that all of the other people that I had been judging so harshly had taken the same oath. But that judge could no sooner take my word than he could have taken the other peoples’ who were ‘clearly’ lying. Without a scrap of evidence, I had nothing to stand on. My words weren’t worth the lint in my pocket-—and I didn’t even have pockets. My oath, a formality, had meant nothing. Because it was founded on nothing.
In a society that doesn’t believe in a God to swear by, there is no assurance of truth. As if on cue, the lines from an essay came back to my mind. The lines are from George Washington’s farewell address as he left the presidential office. With much foresight and wisdom, Washington stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. . . Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Walking back to my car, I felt a strange insecurity, as if the instability of this world shifted suddenly beneath me. It felt like I imagine it would feel to find out that there is no gold to back the paper money in my hands. That it was just that-—paper. How poignant a realization that our country’s system of justice is bad and that it’s just going to get worse because we keep ignoring the One who made it great to begin with.
I cringed as I crossed the street, straining my neck to search for a flash of white tucked under my windshield wiper. Seeing nothing but splattered bugs, I sighed with relief. If justice wasn’t just, it was, at least where my parking meter was concerned, blind.