Friday, July 04, 2008


Justice, exhibits A and B

For this Independence Day, we look at two examples of American justice in 2008.

Exhibit A: Court Dismisses Rendition Suit

A federal appeals court on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Syrian-born Canadian man who had accused the United States of violating the law and his civil rights after he was detained at Kennedy Airport and sent to Syria under what he claims was an act of “extraordinary rendition.”

The man, Maher Arar, tried to win civil damages from United States officials in his suit, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled that because he was never technically inside the United States, his claims could not be heard in the federal courts.

While stating that “threats to the nation’s security do not allow us to jettison principles of ‘simple justice and fair dealing,’ ” the majority opinion ruled nonetheless that Mr. Arar, who had been seized as he tried to change planes at Kennedy Airport while flying back to Canada from Switzerland, had no federal standing in his case and that the government did not violate the Torture Victim Protection Act by sending him abroad.

Jasper Johns, "Map" (1961)
Jasper Johns 'Map', 1961
It’s important to note that the court did not find that the suit had no merit, that the United States did nothing wrong, nor that the plaintiff had not been treated badly. What the court did was dismiss the case by saying that their court wasn’t the right place for it.

Jurisdiction and standing are important principles, when they’re used appropriately. If I should travel to, say, Texas, and get beaten up in a bar, I can’t come back to New York and file suit against my assailants back here. The court would be right to say that it doesn’t have jurisdiction.

And if, on that visit to Texas, I should see someone else being beaten up in a bar, but when I drive him to the hospital he says that he just wants to get patched up and go home... I can’t sue his assailants on his behalf. He has to file the lawsuit, and I have no standing to do it.

In this case, though, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals used these principles to abdicate its responsibility, to fend off a case it didn’t want to touch, to say that it’s Someone Else’s Problem. They used a technicality — that someone who hasn’t yet been cleared by U.S. Customs is not technically considered to have entered the United States — as a way to step out of the case... at the expense of Mr Arar.

United States officials diverted his travel, and United States officials are responsible for it. Even if we agree that he had not “entered the United States”, he was snatched by agents of the United States as he travelled from Switzerland to Canada, and his recourse has to be through the judicial system of the country who had him deported.

Exhibit B: Grand Jury Clears Texan in the Killing of 2 Burglars

HOUSTON — A grand jury on Monday refused to indict a 62-year-old man who fatally shot two burglars last November as they fled his neighbor’s house.


Mr. Horn, a retired computer manager who testified before the grand jury, called 911 on Nov. 14, saying two men were burglarizing his neighbor’s house in Pasadena, a Houston suburb. He described the men as black.

“I’m not going to let them get away with it,” he told the emergency operator. “I’m going to shoot.” He added, “I’m going to kill them.”

The operator repeatedly told Mr. Horn not to shoot, and the police had just arrived at the scene when Mr. Horn fired three blasts of 00 buckshot from his 12-gauge, striking the men in their backs.

The men — Hernando Riascos Torres, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30 — ran short distances before collapsing and dying, leaving behind a tire iron used to break a window and a pillowcase holding jewelry and about $2,000 from the neighbors.

The critics of the grand jury’s decision are bringing up issues of racism, and I’m sure that’s a factor here. But even setting that aside, there’s something terribly wrong with the situation:

The Texas Penal Code allows the use of deadly force if the “actor reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary.” Deadly force can also be used to protect property when “the other is fleeing immediately after committing burglary.”

In other words, in Texas, you can legally kill someone because he’s running away with your jewelry. Or, in this case, with your neighbour’s jewelry. In fact, he doesn’t have to have property at all: you only have to claim that you thought he did. That sort of Old West mentality makes this country a more dangerous place, not a better one.

And how is that consistent with the bible-belt sentiment that exists in the same state, which says that we can’t do research on embryonic stem cells and that abortion is murder, because “every human life is sacred”?

It may be that the Texas grand jury made the right decision according to the Texas law. But the law has to change. How can we allow parts of the United States in the 21st century to behave like people on the newly settled frontier in 1850?

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Every life is sacred (a) until it's born (b) unless it's rich or (c) me.