Courts, Due Process and Getting it Right

[From the archives]


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.

You got the wrong guy!

I remember back in the mid 90s, soon after I became a judge, 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.

Trusting the system means understanding the system

In some countries the model of unjust efficiency I set out above is the norm – the government 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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8 Responses to Courts, Due Process and Getting it Right

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    Near as I can figure, Jesus was talking about trying to determine the heart motives for an action, and then giving that person a “label.” using His own words in another passage, We are not call a person a “fool.” Contrast this to the frequent use of the word “foolish.” We all have done something ‘foolish,’ but that does not make one the ‘fool.’

    Correct me if wrong, but we are expected to be critical (judge) the actions or fruit exhibited by the person, is this not part of discipleship or mentoring? We are severely limited in making assessments on the person.

    Action vs. Person

  2. Jeannie says:

    I think your final paragraphs are a good reminder that we can’t depend on human courts for true justice. I remember when you guest-posted for me, you made the distinction between “justice system” and “legal system,” which is important — only God is the true infallible Judge.

  3. Tara says:

    Thank you for your service and your explanation. I recently heard that “Judge Not” is now the most popular quoted scripture, passing John 3:16. God gave us a brain (or judgement) and the responsibility to judge our decisions as we become if age. God also blessed us with governing authority to guide our judgment as a community (Romans 13). Our communities become stronger when individuals judge their personal responsibility within their judgement of the community. In simple words, quit complaining and DO something about it!

  4. Pingback: When Courts and Church Collide and Divide | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  5. Pingback: My life as a Judge: Courts, Due Process and Getting it Right – GBFSV SPIRITUAL ABUSE VICTIMS' RECOVERY

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