Relatively uninhibited philosophizings on self and kosmos whenever the mood strikes...
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.