Today is Monday, May 21, 2018

Right and Righteous Justice

By Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno

I greet all a Happy New Year!

I join your Chief, Gen. Avelino Razon, Jr. in congratulating your triumphs in law enforcement in year 2007. To quote Gen. Razon, “we celebrate those gains with pride, humility and gratitude in our hearts even as we look eagerly towards a brighter year ahead.” Eloquently spoken for Gen. Razon is a Christian and as a Christian, his word and his walk are in cadence with each other.

Today, January 7, is a significant day for it is the first day after the Filipino Christmas season. January 7 may thus be considered as a day, the first of many, where we shall be tested whether Christ has remained in our lives or whether our love for Christ is co-terminus with the season of merry- making.

It is but appropriate that we greet the New Year with this fellowship of kindred minds where we can attempt to capture the continuing mysticism of right and righteous leadership. I say mysticism because the correct mix of right and righteous leadership is one formula that has eluded mankind. On this particular occasion, however, I wish to focus on your role as leaders in the administration of our criminal justice system. As we all know, the criminal justice system is not a monolithical structure but is composed of five pillars, namely, the law enforcement pillar, the prosecution pillar, the correction and rehabilitation pillar, and the community pillar. No pillar can operate in isolation for the performance of each impacts on the other.

In fine, all of those who compose the five pillars are involved in the dispensation of justice. The difficult question is how does one dispense justice that is not only right but also righteous?

Where do we get our lodestar in rendering righteous justice? I refer you to the gospel of John, Chapter 8, Verses 1-11, and I quote:

Then everyone went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early the next morning, he went back to the Temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our law, Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?” They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger. As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened up and said to them, “Whichever one of you here has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they all left one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. He straightened up and said to her, “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

“No one sir,” she answered.

“ Well then,” Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”

Crime has been the problem of the human race since the dawn of time, and not just ordinary crime, but that of the heinous variety. The Old Testament story of Cain and Abel tells us about the first crime committed by man. I want you to note that the first crime was perpetrated within the family, by a brother against a brother, not against a stranger. And the first crime was a heinous one -- murder. Since Cain murdered Abel, we have been in a quest for justice; we have had to grapple with the problem of crime and criminals; and philosophers have endlessly debated the legal and moral justification for punishment, especially the infliction of the ultimate punishment – the death penalty. As well-observed by a world- renowned social scientist:

x x x. The long history of the debate over this question contains many proposed answers, answers into two great traditions of thought. Classical retributism (standardly associated with the views of Kant and Hegel) maintains that punishment is justified because it gives wrongdoers what they deserve. When punishment “fits” the crimes for which they are imposed, punishment restores a kind of moral balance or harmony that crime upset. As a purely “backward looking” theory, retributism thus finds present justification for punishment solely in the nature and extent of the past immorality of the criminal. The classical deterrent theory (which is usually utilitarian in inspiration) holds that punishment is justified by its future good consequences and that kinds and amounts of punishment should be determined by what best facilitates happy social interaction. Since punishing criminals normally deters future criminal activity both by the punished criminal himself and by others, impressed by the example of his punishment and since it has as well other consequences (such as disabling the criminal for a time, possibly rehabilitating him, gratifying injured parties, etc.), punishment is morally justified in those instances where its good consequences outweigh the harm it does to the criminals. (Punishment: A Philosophy and Public Affairs Reader, 1995 ed., Introduction, p.8)

These two schools of thought – classical retributism and classical deterrence – have bred hybrid theories of punishment, but we are not here to analyze their interstices. Suffice it to state that they have provided support to the criminal justice systems throughout the modern world, whether in democratic countries where the emphasis is on liberty; or in communist and other authoritarian countries, where the stress is on discipline and order.

It is against this backdrop of differing human thoughts on crime and punishment that we should view the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees on how to judge the adulterous woman. The confrontation was awash with significance for the Lord Jesus. He knew He was up against the Pharisees, the repositories of legal learning at the time. He knew He had to contend with the age-old interpretation of the law on adultery, which had been settled since the time of Moses, the Old Testament lawgiver. He knew He could not afford the cost of mistake, as the cost was prohibitive: the life of the adulterous woman was at stake, for the adultery was punishable by stoning to death; and, more than the life of the accused adulterous woman, His own life was on the line; an error on his part would bring about the charge of violating the Jewish laws. How Jesus dealt with the accused and her accusers, how He treated the crime and the criminal, provides us with the standard to follow when we assume the role of judges in daily life.

First, let me focus on how He dealt with the accusers, the Pharisees. At that time, they were part of the elite of society. They were men of enormous learning, men learned in the law. They wielded the levers of power in society and in government. Their powers awed even the powerful, and they terrorized the powerless. But not the Lord Jesus -- the carpenter’s son -- who gave not an iota of consideration for their special status, no extra favor for their privileged status. In other words, despite their big names, the Pharisees failed to influence Jesus into action, they failed to rush Him to judgment, for to Jesus the essence of justice is that it is the same for prince and pauper alike.

Second, the impure motive of the accusers, the Pharisees, and their sinful selves were not lost to the perceptive eyes of Jesus. He knew and considered as vital their evil motive in bringing the adulterous woman before Him for His judgment. They were not interested in the adultery of the woman; they were interested in trapping Jesus into rendering a wrong judgment, so that they could accuse Him of violating the Mosaic laws. The impurity of their motive did not help the Pharisees any. In Matthew 7:3, Jesus posed this searching question to those who delighted in making accusations. “Why then do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the speck in your own eye?” In other words, Jesus considered the purity of an accuser’s motive as a component part of justice.

Third, I urge you to focus on how Jesus viewed the stern, unforgiving Mosaic law on adultery, how He dealt with crimes and criminals. The Jews were governed by lex talionis, the law that decrees “an eye-for-an-eye” and “a tooth-for-a-tooth.” The Jews were sticklers for rules, hidebound by laws. When their law penalizes you by losing your eye, they gouge your eye; when their law penalizes you with the loss of your arm, they cut your arm; when the law says you die, they kill you.

The rigidity of law, however, did not handcuff the hands of Jesus. He judged the adulterous woman with the law of love and mercy. Indeed, it was He who reduced all human laws to a one-word commandment – love. This was the new commandment He left to humankind. And because He did not only preach but practice it, He did not condemn the criminal even if He did not approve of her crime. He dismissed the woman by saying, “Go and sin no more.” Yes, because of the law of love, He was able to distinguish between sin and sinner, an important distinction that we should always bear in mind.

Lastly, Jesus, in dealing with the adulterous woman, taught us that in passing judgments, we should not be concerned with gaining popularity points. The story tells us that after rendering the judgment, Jesus was left alone. The crowd, the people, the majority who wanted to see blood, deserted Him. His judgment did not sit well with the majority; it was not popular; and in the end He found no one in agreement with Him. Jesus, as a judge, found himself not only in the minority but in a minority of one. He was not bothered by His isolation -- by the solitude of being in the minority -- for He knew that truth, justice and righteousness were questions that were not decided by a majority vote.

One message of Jesus as a righteous judge is that lack of numbers should not demoralize those involved in dispensing justice. A lot of times we shall find ourselves in the minority. Sometimes we may find ourselves alone, alone with ourselves, alone with our shadows. But lack of numbers should not weaken our sense of what is right and what is righteous. Right and righteousness cannot be tested by the magic of numbers. What is right and righteous will remain right and righteous, even if a million voices say otherwise. If we are wrong, we will not be right, just because a million voices say we are right.

We who dispense justice as policemen and as judges should therefore not be terrorized by the tyranny of numbers. Indeed, we will often find ourselves in the minority, but we must shake the paralysis of powerlessness coming from lack of numerical support. When we work as dispensers of right and righteousness, the least factor we should consider is whether we are in the majority or in the minority. We should forget the comfort, the safety, and the delight that can temporarily be provided by the majority. The reason is simple: the great truths – whether religious truths, moral truths or political truths – are not determined by popularity vote, because oftentimes the majority rests only on what is momentarily delightful or what is pleasantly pleasurable.

I leave to all dispensers of right and righteous justice the advice of St. Paul to the Ephesians: “xxx Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might. Put the whole armor of God… Put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

A pleasant evening to all of you.


Delivered during the PNP Ethics Day held on January 7, 2008, at Camp Crame, Quezon City

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