Friday, October 26, 2007

Can a Court Ruling Be Both Just and Wrong?

Genarlow Wilson, 21, has spent more than two years in prison for having consensual oral sex at a party in 2003 with a girl who was two years younger than him. He was convicted under a 1995 Georgia law that made his offense of "aggravated child molestation" a serious felony, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison without possibility of probation or parole.

There has been much publicity about this case, as many, myself included, believe that the severity of this sentence was an egregious miscarriage of justice. The Georgia state Legislature implicitly agreed by changing the law in 2006 to make consensual oral sex between two teenagers so close in age a misdemeanor rather than a felony. But the law was expressly NOT made retroactive, so Wilson languished in prison and his formal appeal and the public's protestations went unheeded by the courts. Even the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the new law couldn't be applied retroactively to Wilson or anyone else convicted under the earlier law.

However, when a Monroe County judge decided to reduce Wilson's sentence to a year and release him and the state appealed his decision, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ended up with a 4-3 ruling upholding the lower court judge's decision to have Wilson released. The minority judges expressed their disagreement by arguing that the ruling exhibited "unprecedented disregard" for the Legislature's constitutional authority. Nevertheless, the decision stands and Wilson is expected to be released this afternoon.

I'm delighted that he's going to be free, and I hope that being in prison for over two years hasn't seriously undermined his chances of making a good life for himself on the outside. He is reportedly "committed to talking and working with young people to spread the message that he made a mistake that night and doesn't want it to happen to anyone else." However, I'm not sure I understand the higher court's ruling. I agree wholeheartedly with its statement: "Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children." Yet, if the state Legislature does, indeed, have the constitutional authority to make laws that are not to be applied retroactively, and the Georgia Supreme Court itself court upheld that authority with respect to the very law in question just a short time ago, on what strictly LEGAL grounds could it turn around and negate that authority and its own previous ruling?

It seems to me that we have a rather clear case of, in Wilberian Integral terms, "second tier" or integral values overcoming "first tier" values, which, it seems to me, is what true justice often demands. That is, true justice often requires that we look beyond and rise above the mere letter of the law to embrace and manifest its motivating spirit. It would seem that four of the Georgia Supreme Court justices were able to do that, although one can't know for sure what really motivated each of them to decide as they did, and three justices could not. The latter and those who side with them are trapped in a conventional "the law is the law" mentality or worse, and they would have let Wilson spend another eight years in prison for being a seventeen-year-old boy who engaged in one documented act of oral sex with a fully consenting fifteen-year-old girl.

Again, it seems to me that justice triumphed over legal formality in this case. But I wonder if some court somewhere might just as easily violate legal formality to inflict injustice. For instance, might a court rule that a law can be applied retroactively to impose a much harsher sentence on someone than he originally received under the previous law he was convicted of violating, or could it even decide that someone can be tried for breaking a law that didn't even exist at the time he allegedly broke it? If it does, I hope there's a quick remedy for it and that justice ultimately and swiftly prevails.


Tom said...

Interesting issues. Good post.

A quick googling around indicates the majority opinion was based on the Georgia constitution with a ruling that the punishment was cruel and unusual. So the grounds are purely legal.

I would be uncomfortable with courts of appeal [including supreme courts, the ultimate courts of appeal] making Integral decisions. True justice decisions should be made by lenient prosecuting attorneys and juries, and to some degree by the judge at a trial.

Appeals should be rather anal-retentively mechanical. There, the issues are legalistic, the parties to the crime aren't being dealt with as flesh-and-blood people. The trial is the venue for testimony and passion and feeling. But, courts of appeal are last opportunities for justice and appeal courts have tools to find just decisions.

Nagarjuna said...

You make an excellent point. The Georgia Supreme Court didn't expressly rule that the Georgia Legislature couldn't prohibit the 2006 law from being applied retroactively to those convicted under the much harsher 1995 law. It explicitly ruled that the punishment prescribed by the 1995 law was unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" in its application to sentencing in the case of Genarlow Wilson.

Yet, if the 1995 law under which Wilson was sentenced prescribed unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment," doesn't this imply that the 1995 law itself was unconstitutional and, therefore, that ALL who were sentenced under this unconstitutional law should have their sentences thrown out the same way Wilson had his thrown out?

It will be interesting to see how this ruling is applied to others who have been sentenced under the 1995 law. For instance, when the Georgia Supreme Court said that Wilson's SENTENCE should be set aside altogether because it was unconstitutional, does this mean that his CONVICTION should also be set aside because it was a conviction for violating an unconstitutional law? If so, should all who were convicted under the old law have THEIR convictions thrown out too? And, if so, could they be retried and convicted under the auspices of the 2006 law? "Double jeopardy" prohibits trying someone for the same crime after a verdict has been reached. But would trying someone for breaking the 2006 law be trying them for the same crime?

Tom, I understand your reluctance to have higher courts overruling lower ones on "integral" or non-"anal-retentively mechanical" grounds. Yet, I blogged a recent entry about a friend of a friend of mine being arrested for allegedly molesting his young daughter that gives me pause from embracing your viewpoint.

After this guy was arrested, a $1,000,000 bail was imposed that he had no way in hell of paying. The public offender appointed for him said to my friend that the guy was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. A high profile criminal attorney who attends the guy's church agreed to take over his defense for a nominal fee and is having all kinds of difficulty obtaining the state's complete evidence against his client in a timely manner. Despite this defense attorney's involvement in the case, the deck seems heavily stacked against the poor guy, who my friend believes is innocent. And if he had been forced to settle for the "services" of his appointed public defender who had him convicted and put away for life even before he was arraigned, I can't see how he wouldn't have been convicted whether he was innocent or not.

But while this conviction might be perfectly in keeping with the letter of the law, it would sure seem to violate its spirit. And one would hope that a higher legal authority or court would have and exercise the power to go beyond "anal-retentively mechanical" considerations in cutting this guy a break in the name of genuine justice.

This whole subject of the appeals process and what factors should regulate it is most fascinating.

Tom said...

As to the specific issue of Genarlow Wilson's case, it will be interesting to read the Georgia Supreme Court's decision. It'll be on the Internet soon.

I like the idea of spreading responsibilities around. There is danger in giving a Supreme Court truly supreme responsibilities. After all, such a court really can decide things in whatever way it chooses. It can be arbitrary. It can be nutty. It is held in check in several ways: (1) There is political pressure for the governor/president to appoint intelligent, qualified candidates, (2) The legislature has to approve an appointment (3) There are many members on the court (4) They are fenced in by a constitution and by law (5) They decide on misapplications of law, not misapplications of justice. (6) There are means to remove a justice from the court.

Your friend still has many steps to go in the process of deciding his guilt/non-guilt with respect to the charges against him. There are intermediate means in place to address the problems that you allude to that are short of the function of an appeals process. We can only hope that all evidence will be uncovered and examined and he will be treated fairly.

I think our justice system is a remarkable one that, if everything works as it should, will make mostly right decisions that are by the rule and spirit just. I think it is correct for there to be a 'trailing' system [an appeals system] that is mechanical, looking after the procedures that were followed, making sure everything was done according to Hoyle.

Still, it is a system, like anything of man's, that is mistake prone and subject to fail from time to time.