Former federal judge Sandy Mattice delivered these remarks following the unveiling of his portrait in the third-floor courtroom of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Aug. 5.
As I’ve looked back on my time as a judge, I’ve tried to think about things that have made the greatest impression on me. While it’s difficult to narrow it down to one or two things, if pressed, I’d say it was the jurors: Ordinary citizens who were called away from their daily lives, sometimes at great expense or sacrifice to themselves and their families, to perform one of the most basic – but also one of the most important – obligations of citizenship.
To be sure, not all of them always came eagerly, or even gladly. Indeed, some came kicking and screaming. But they always came.
And in my experience, once they got here, the seriousness and importance of what they were doing settled over them and they did their duty – probably the most difficult duty we assign to anyone or any group in our system of justice.
After the whole messy business was over – after they had deliberated and reached their verdict – they did, in my estimation, almost always get it right in the end.
At some point during my time as a judge, someone brought to my attention the conclusion to the jury charge that one of my distinguished predecessors, Frank Wilson, delivered in the criminal trial of Jimmy Hoffa in 1964 – almost certainly the most famous trial ever held in this courtroom. Here is what Judge Wilson told those jurors:
“One of the purposes of the court’s charge is to instill in you a resolution to apply your best and finest faculties to the decision of this case, to call on you to put aside all sympathy or prejudice or improper motive or feeling in your search for the truth, to ask you to dedicate yourselves to seek in good faith and with respect for each other’s opinions, to arrive at a verdict that will express your opinion of where the truth lies in this case, for each side and every party is entitled to fair and just consideration when brought before a court of law.
“But also remember that in any case, not only are the parties to the suit on trial, but the judicial process itself is on trial. Remember and understand that our system of justice itself is on trial in every lawsuit. Each time you apply your best and finest faculties to ascertaining the truth in accordance with the evidence and the instructions the court has given you, then justice will prevail. And justice is the only condition under which freedom can exist.”
I don’t know whether this is how Judge Wilson ended his jury charge in every case or whether he chose this language for this particular case. But in either event, it’s a very fine statement of the key role that jurors – ordinary citizens called onto perform an essential and extraordinary civic duty – play in our American justice system.
Of course, our justice system is but a microcosm of, and a metaphor for, our democracy itself. Our Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” and it’s vitally important that we always remember that in our democracy, the authority and the legitimacy of the government and of all its institutions begins and ends with the people themselves.
Judge Learned Hand – one of the greatest jurists and legal philosophers America has produced – alluded to this in a speech he gave in May 1944 before more than a million people in New York City’s Central Park.
The occasion was what was called I am an American Day. At the time, World War II continued to rage in Europe and the Pacific. Notably, the huge crowd assembled there in Manhattan included a large number of newly naturalized Americans citizens, who would recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as citizens that day. (It’s worth noting that as we all recited the pledge in this courtroom a few moments ago, we ended by paying homage to our most important values – liberty and justice.)
At the time, and despite having served on the federal bench for 35 years at that point – both as a district judge and a court of appeals judge – Learned Hand was not a widely-known public figure. His speech that day changed that.
This is part of what he said:
“What do we mean when we say we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes.”
To me, what Hand said next deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of the American creed, right up there with the Gettysburg Address. He said this:
“Liberty (and I would presume to add justice) lives in the hearts of people. While it lives there, it needs no Constitution, no law, no court to save it. When it dies there, no Constitution, no law, no court can save it.”
In the opening scene of his famous play “A Man for All Seasons,” which deals with the conflict between King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More – which ultimately resulted in More’s execution – playwright Robert Bolt has the narrator observe: “The Sixteenth Century was the century of the common man. Just like all the other centuries.”
The fundamental, undergirding premise of democracy is that ordinary people – the common man – can make better decisions for their own welfare than the wisest king who ever ruled.
Today, we are living through a period when American institutions, American society and even American values seem to be under assault like few other times in our history. Some even question whether American democracy – this grand experiment in which we have been engaged for the past 246 years – can survive much longer.
My experience in watching jurors perform their solemn duty in this courtroom over the years gives me confidence that American democracy will not only survive, it will also thrive. Those jurors have given me the courage to believe liberty and justice will continue to live in the hearts of the people, just as it always has.
As he so often did, Winston Churchill might have said it best when summing up the American character. He said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
Just like those jurors I watched, we’ll get it right in the end. We’re just going through a rough patch right now while we try everything else.