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· On Parsing English Justice ·

Justice: The Hope of All Who Are Just. The Dread of All Who Wrong.

These few words appeared in the court I sat in Wednesday. They brought to mind an old writing maxim; you've heard it: "prefer active verbs." The injunction invites verbal action from stylish English writers. Indeed, the best handbooks repeat it, zealous E-primers fetishize it, and alert, really competent writers follow it — maybe more dutifully than religiously. I know I do.

But Wednesday, asked by a judge to be his appointed tool of local justice, I knew I was in trouble. For I'd hoped I couldn't be, and when I wasn't, I dreaded I'd in fact wronged someone. I felt an essential guilt weighing, metaphysically, on anyone standing before the old bar of English justice.

It wasn't a matter of identity politics. For I'd not been asked if I was rich or poor, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, or a host of other oppositions bedeviling thought today. All I'd been asked was one question: could I be just? The categories figuring in my oath — "facts," "truth," "evidence," "reason" — were all good metaphysical abstractions, but when taken from me by a "peremptory challenge," I felt myself then pleading at the bar. For I couldn't be a juror, since I'd been judged and, indeed, found wanting.

Although I've known that's crucial to our system, today I thought to pass the explanation on to a better writer, G. K. Chesterton. Since Chesterton became an English juror (and I just a reject), I thought you might like his Twelve Men. By the way, consider me Chesterton's "bicycle thief."

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Posted by Styles on February 26, 2003 12:51 PM


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