Rush to Judgment

[This is a piece I first wrote as a guest post for Rachel Stone last May. She and I were talking about courtroom processes, and one thing led to another until I got this down in writing and then (since I didn’t have a blog of my own back then) she graciously agreed to run it at her place. You should click over there and read her wonderful writing!]


I have the only job Jesus ever explicitly prohibited: “Judge not.” (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37.) Yet every day I put on a robe (I call it my black muumuu) and sit on the bench judging. It’s a living.

“Quote Scripture out of context much, Tim?” you might be asking. Good catch. Jesus isn’t talking about judging as a profession, or exercising judgment in our day-to-day lives. In fact, the Bible tells us both those are good. (See, for example, Exodus 18 and 1 John 4:1.) Jesus is talking about judgmentalism, described by D.A. Carson as a “critical spirit, a condemning attitude.” You’ve seen it, you know what it is, and if you’re like me you’ve done it.

It comes up a lot when a particularly heinous crime is committed, or someone famous gets arrested. Everyone has an opinion, and the internet lets everyone else know what it is. For a lot of people, an arrest is as good as a conviction. After all, people think, where there’s smoke there’s fire and no one gets arrested unless they did something wrong.

If this were true, we could set up a really efficient system: a police officer arrests someone and drives them to prison, tells the warden the person is guilty of a crime and the warden then just locks them up. See what I mean? No need for courtrooms, no need for judges, no one gets a lawyer, no one ever gets called for jury duty. Efficient!

Efficient, and unjust.

I remember back in the mid 90s, soon after I became a judge, when a young man appeared in court wearing a jail jumpsuit and, upon hearing the charges, blurted out, “That wasn’t me, it’s my brother! He did it to me again!” It turned out his brother had done it to him again. In fact, the poor guy’s brother made a habit of committing crimes and giving the police a false name, which led to this guy’s arrest because you know what name the miscreant always gave? The name of the guy standing in front of me in the jail jumpsuit. Fortunately for him, the court-appointed attorney got it straightened out quickly and the poor guy was set free. The miscreant? He was eventually picked up, just like always.

You see, our Constitution provides everyone with the right to due process, but for an arrest due process merely means that all the police need is “probable cause”. This is a fairly low standard; if the police have a valid reason to think a particular person committed a crime they can arrest that person for it.

In my state, if it’s a felony charge, we then hold a preliminary examination where the prosecutor needs to present sufficient evidence to support a strong suspicion that the crime occurred and that this person is the one who committed it; this is a higher level of proof than needed for an arrest, but lower than for conviction. The case gets dismissed if there’s not enough evidence.

At trial, the prosecutor has to put on enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is enough evidence, the jury returns a guilty verdict. If not, then not guilty. I’ve had both types of verdicts in my courtroom, and it’s not a bad system, especially when you consider that there are places in this a world where nothing even remotely resembling due process exists.

As a matter of fact, in some countries the model of unjust efficiency I set out above is the norm – the government just arrests people, puts them in prison, and keeps them there. So why do people in our society not cherish our Constitutional rights of due process? Why do people rush to judgment and call out for justice before anyone has examined the evidence, before the accused person is even given a chance to be heard?

I think people don’t trust the system to work because they aren’t familiar with how it works. And if they aren’t familiar with the system then they don’t know that it actually does work. But what about when people do get away with committing crimes, hurting others, ruining lives? This is probably the deeper issue, because we know that sometimes people literally get away with murder. How can we trust a system that does not bring every single criminal to justice?

Well, if that’s what you expect from a criminal justice system then you’ll be very disappointed. That perfect system doesn’t exist in any government here on earth and never has. While we have some that work fairly well considering that everyone involved is a fallible human being, none of the systems are perfect.

The good news, though, is that there is one infallible and perfect judge, “the Judge of all the earth” as Abraham put it. (Genesis 18:25), and I find that when I am tempted to condemn or rush to judgment, trusting God tends to put a damper on the desire to be judgmental.

Instead of rushing to judgment, I’d rather rush to the Judge.

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19 Responses to Rush to Judgment

  1. Points well taken, and I also liked your last post. Scripture tells us to exhort which calls for some judgment, do you think? Maybe it is wisdom to know the right words and the right timing for those words.

  2. Adriana says:

    This is one of the first posts I remember commenting on. I was thinking about asking you to run it again. Great post, Tim!

  3. Jeannie says:

    This is so interesting. Often victims and their families expect they’ll find “closure” if a particular verdict is reached and are devastated when it doesn’t. But in an imperfect system, closure (such as it is) can’t be found that way.

    One part I do have trouble with (and perhaps just reflects my not understanding how the system works) is when people are not obligated to tell the truth. For example (and this happened here in our city): a young handicapped man was crossing legally at an intersection on a rainy night; a car entered the intersection, didn’t yield, and hit him; he died. The driver was clearly the one at fault, although there WERE some mitigating factors like the rain and poor visibility. No one else saw the mishap, so no one could prove beyond a doubt who was driving. But of course, the driver knows she was driving. Her husband knows she was driving, too. But they don’t have to SAY that she was driving. That kind of thing does upset me. I realize of course that our admonitions to our kids “Always tell the truth and things will work out better” aren’t equivalent to legal rules. And some people would say “Aha, but that will haunt the driver for the rest of her life!” as if the whole point is punishment of some sort, which does seem harsh. But I still have trouble with the idea that someone can withhold information that would clarify the case. Just a thought I had — I don’t expect you to give a “ruling” on what I’ve said!

    • Tim says:

      It is upsetting when people won’t take responsibility, Jeannie. When it comes to compelling people to do so, though, there are dangers inherent in that.

      In the U.S., the right to be free from self-incrimination in criminal matters is in the 5th Amendment of the Constitution. America had experience with forced confessions; torture was not unknown even in the colonies, and it is still present in many countries today as a standard way of getting people to “take responsibility” for their actions, whether they are really responsible or not.

      Another aspect you brought up is the spousal privilege. I’m not sure what the rule is in Canada, but here in California often one spouse cannot be compelled to testify in a trial where the other spouse is a party. This isn’t a Constitutional right, but rather is statutory protection based on a public policy that says the interests of the parties in an individual case are not as important as the preservation of the marriage state is to society overall. It’s a legislative judgment call, but one that has a long history in English Common Law.

      I’m not sure if I’ve clarified or obscured, but I hope this helps.

      • Jeannie says:

        Actually it does help and clarifies things greatly; I’m assuming Can. law has some similar principles. The part about spousal privilege is really interesting in its larger social implications as well as the individual level — I hadn’t realized any of that.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Found the original link to this post:

    Just call me Jeannie Prinsen, P.I. (where IS my Hawaiian shirt anyway?). OK, I admit I used Google. Does that make me a bad person? 🙂

  5. breathlife37 says:

    I love this look at judgment. “Instead of rushing to judgment, I’d rather rush to the Judge.”

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    I love hearing from people who take their vocation seriously. It is wonderful how you have pointed us to our Great Judge too, Tim. Thank you.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Aimee. I’ve never thought about how seriously I take my occupation, but you’re right. As much as I enjoy my job, my actions bear out that I also take it very seriously. And believe me, I really, really enjoy my job!

  7. Pingback: Out To The Margins: Tim Fall

  8. Pingback: When the Judge Gets Cross-Examined – my secrets revealed | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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