James Madison wrote: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Madison understood safeguards were required to protect both our democracy and civil liberties. Madison, along with other great thinkers, came up with a structure and system to protect our form of government and individual freedoms, while ensuring that justice would be served. Part of the structure is called “Separation of Powers,” and the system is “Due Process.”
Many countries around the world have struggled with balancing the interests between an individual’s rights and the power of their respective governments. Unfortunately, many nations are driven by or for those of influence and wealth with little account for equality, integrity, honesty or fairness.
While we encounter many challenges in the American justice system, we fortunately recognize certain constitutionally guaranteed rights. As a practical matter, this means everyone should be treated fairly and impartially. Notice of charges or claims is provided. The exchange and presentation of evidence is required. Attendance of witnesses may be compelled, and each side is allowed to be heard. In criminal cases, rights are explained and attorneys provided. There’s also a right to a review of all decisions. This “due process” is adversarial in nature, thus each side presents their evidence and tells a judge or jury their version of events. By hearing both sides, the court hopes to determine the truth.
There’s the rub. What is the truth? Scientists will tell you there’s no certainty of any fact, just probabilities. Some facts are reasonable and have not been disproven, like gravity. Others are questionable, and many are unlikely. Lawyers, and politicians, on the other hand, might describe the truth as facts supported by evidence; and alternative facts are just another version of lies. People of religion might claim truth is absolute, founded on morality. There is only one version which is pure and honest; the rest is deceit.
Whichever definition fits your preference, the “truth” is that the determination of the truth is an extremely difficult, time consuming, but necessary endeavor. It’s difficult because anyone can say anything at any time and give a distorted version of reality. However, in all aspects of life, large and small, the truth is required to assess situations, make sensible, reasonable decisions, and ultimately administer justice. Without finding the truth, justice cannot ensue.
The occurrences are not many, but even with safeguards in place, we hear an innocent person spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit. How does this happen? It happens because of human imperfections. Sometimes in our righteous pursuits, emotions guide our better judgment, decisions are rushed, mistakes made or motives distorted. All can cause truth to be lost and justice tarnished. Avoiding misfortunes requires diligence and patience.
It’s accurate to say some may have committed the crimes for which they have been charged. But we cannot be more certain of the truth until we have let our method of “due process” take its course. It can be frustrating to those that desire a conviction or retribution to have to wait for the process to be completed. We’ve become so accustomed to having all things desired or necessary provided at almost lightning speed. Our information, entertainment and sustenance can be had with the press of a button and measured in seconds. But justice requires truth, and truth simply takes time. There is no drive-thru version of truth, even when it’s presented in sound bites or tweets. As we celebrate Independence Day, it might be useful to recall “due process” is just one of many rights we have that ensure our greatness as a nation.
If these protections were not in place, we might all succumb to the power of government or authoritarian leaders and suffer consequences that could interfere with our democracy or inherent rights and freedoms. Without these constitutional safeguards, we might learn that Madison’s angels aren’t involved in the determinations related to truth or justice. However, with “due process” protections, and the good conscience and better angels of humans, we might get closer to justice and an unconditional truth. When truth is found, justice will account for itself.
Judge Frank Sedillo presides over the civil division of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Opinions here are of the judge and not the court.