If only things were so simple!
Complexities are a bane. Something in us yearns for simplicity. But most of us realize that many things can’t be as simple as we would like them to be.
We wish that all cases were “open and shut.” We wish there were no ambiguities, and all evidence were clear-cut, and all moral decisions were easy, and all laws were easily read and understood and applied.
But life is complicated. People are complex. Relationships and circumstances create infinitely varied combinations. One size does not fit all.
One anguished man whom I conversed with in a Court House waiting area stated that only statutes should be given any weight, and case law should not exist. Possibly he does not fully understand the operation of case law. That law changes, or evolves, and should reflect the accumulation of the community’s experience with the application of a given measure, makes no sense to him. When the statute(s) that apply in a given case could not cover all the different sets of facts and circumstances where the statute would be applied may not be clear to him. That the repeated application of a statute brings forth needs for clarification is clear enough. Should we all have to wait for the legislature to revise the statute, with its well known deliberate speed?
We have the benefit of experience—our own, that of others. We learn from it. Law benefits from it.
A lettitor (letter to the editor) that was in another paper lately expressed the writer’s absolute conviction that all we need is the Constitution. As it happens, this is a common assertion of some who identify themselves as Tea Party movement members. We should just follow the Constitution, but not interpret it. The very idea of interpreting it is blasphemous.
Reverence for the Constitution is an element of this political religion. The Constitution is said to be sacred, and to be persecuted, and to have been crucified, or to have been slain, or driven into exile.
“We need to abolish all the laws that have grown up around the Constitution so we can’t even see it anymore,” someone declared at a rally.
I want to yell back, “Get a grip, people! Do you know how and why they hammered out the Constitution? Why did the Founders even include an amendment process, or provide for a legislative branch?” But Constitution radicals are not in a listening or a thinking mood; they are just venting.
“It’s all about [some vastly oversimplified description of an issue],” candidates or proponents of some position proclaim. “It’s all about taxes,” states one. “It’s all about special interests,” asserts another. But it isn’t ALL about any one thing. It’s about many things.
Every so often someone gets all excited about the supposed right to put the Ten Commandments on a government building or on a court house wall or other public place.
The people insisting that prominent, public property Decalogue display must be allowed self-identify as Christians, the very people who should understand that the law of the Mosaic Covenant was subsumed by the two-fold commandment of the New Covenant (or New Testament).
Interestingly enough, these displays of the Ten Commandments usually feature two slabs looking like primitive grave markers, each with five commandments incised, identified with Roman Numerals, in English, reading from left to right. Oy vey, how authentically Biblical is that!
“Just follow the Ten Commandments—they are simple enough, and they need no explanation,” a religious demagogue was quoted as saying, a few weeks ago. Surely a devout Jew, you say? Not at all. A Christian, he claims; also, a prophet, according to another claim.
Curiously enough, the Biblical account of the giving of the Ten Commandments is followed by an account of other laws being proclaimed. Lots of them. And more followed, through the ages.
There were all sorts of instructions for the priestly tribe, and a book of Leviticus with lots of special laws about food and clothing and cleanliness and rituals and morals. There’s another whole book called The Second Law, or Deuteronomy. According to the Bible, those succinct ten commandments may have been in stone, but they were not enough.
Nothing suggests that the Ten Commandments were intended to govern all people in all times. But I will say, if all of us followed them all the time, none of the societal ills that have given rise to the rest of the laws would be needed. There would be no war. In fact, if we all kept the Christian “laws of love,” there would be no need for other laws. If all people including atheists abided by unconditional neighbor-love principles, we would be able to dispense with courts and military systems and maybe with government. The problem is that we can’t conquer our vices, or our human frailties, well enough.
The language of the Constitution itself does not suggest that it is the all-sufficient body of law which should be used to govern the nation. In fact, it is clear from the document itself that it was to be a living document, and that the system of government it defines was expected to grow and adapt to changing times and a growing nation.
It’s sad but true that seldom is justice simple, and government is complicated.