If you read last week’s column (hey, I can dream can’t I), you know I am preparing to help the National Judicial College teach Rural Court Judges. Last week we talked about the theory that our law arises from our history and culture, our Volksgeist. Or as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) put it, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience”.
Posey County, Indiana has produced several influential thinkers on what our law should be and do, that is, what is the proper purpose of our legal system? Our most famous citizen was and still is Alvin P. Hovey (1821–1891). Hovey was an attorney, a Posey Circuit Court judge, a general and the only governor to ever come from Posey County (1889–1891). He also sat on the Indiana Supreme Court when it decided a poor person was entitled to the same protection of our laws as a rich person.
Another of our famous predecessors was the brilliant and courageous Frances (Mad Fanny) Wright (1795–1852) who gave her entire adult life to an effort to free slaves and secure equal rights for women. Unfortunately, her good deeds were often overshadowed by her lifestyle. Still she fought for those who could not fight for themselves.
Frances Wright’s companion and fellow traveler was former Congressman Robert Dale Owen (1801–1877). Owen knew Abraham Lincoln from having served in Congress in 1843–1847 while Lincoln served in Congress 1847–1849. Owen’s 1863 letter to Lincoln urging him to free the slaves is credited with influencing the President to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Robert Owen and Alvin Hovey were also Posey County’s delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850–1852 that produced our 1852 Constitution in which our legal system demands fair and equal treatment regardless of a person’s ability to pay. The Preamble sets forth the first principle of our government is to establish justice and, as set forth in Article I, “That all people are created equal”.
Article I, Section 12, guarantees equal justice to rich and poor alike:
“All courts shall be open and every person for injury done to him in his person, property, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase; completely, and without denial; speedily, and without delay.”
While there are many reasons we need justice from our legal system, I suggest the two most important areas concern whether our government wants to lock us up or take away our children. Of course, there are many wealthy people who are charged with crimes and even some wealthy people who the rest of us believe should lose their children to state care. However, it is simply a fact that most people who go to jail are poor as are most parents whose children are removed by the courts.
It is usually the poor and powerless who are caught up in the terrifying, confusing and expensive legal system. And frequently these poor people are not highly educated nor do they have friends in high places. They need help and both Indiana and federal law guarantee that help to them, including representation by an attorney. If the rest of us want to lock someone up or take away their children, the least we can do is follow the law ourselves and provide these people with legal assistance as our Constitutions demand. This is not only required by law, fair, just and reasonable, it is good for all of us. If the innocent are not locked up or the guilty are fairly sentenced or children are not removed when unnecessary or when necessary are removed carefully and with efforts to help the children and the parents, such justice is in our own self interest. In other words, not only is it right, it is smart and in the long run saves us money as it helps people recover so they may contribute to society. And it helps families remain united or reunite.
If we can spend trillions on matters beyond our borders, we should not be mean-spirited and self-destructive with our own citizens. Plus, it complies with the law, especially those state and federal Constitutions some of us are fond of saying we revere.