Equal Justice for All?

August 1, 2010

The Torah teaches (Devarim 16:19): לֹא־תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים – Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons. Rashi takes this as a prohibition incumbent upon tribunals: Not only may one not favor one side over the other, but not even give the appearance that this is so. More particularly: Even when the litigants argue their cases before the tribunal, the judge is forewarned not to treat them differently, to be easy with one litigant and hard with the other, not to make one stand while the other is allowed to press his case while seated, for the mere sight of a judge bestowing respect upon one litigant renders the other litigant mute (Based on TB Sanhedrin 30a).

While in theory this principle is well accepted and even obvious, in reality, matters are not everywhere all right. Thus, CBS News reports:

Justice may not be blind after all.

According to a Cornell University study, unattractive defendants are 22 percent more likely to be convicted than good-looking ones. And the unattractive also get slapped with harsher sentences – an average of 22 months longer in prison.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect the ancient Jewish idea, of judges covering their faces (see Rashi Devarim 1:43) so as not to see the litigants while they plead their cases, and not to be influenced by their antics.