Friday, December 2, 2011

Does Justice Have a Price Tag?


I read an interesting article in the New York Times this morning: "The Bill of Rights Doesn’t Come Cheap".

Briefly, a case ( Williams v. Illinois) before the Supreme Court involves exactly how far a defendant's right to confront his or her accuser(s) extends. At issue is whether or not a defendant's counsel can call a forensic analyst to testify under the broad interpretation of accuser. The author comes down on the side of a broad interpretation.

As I began reading this I instinctively assumed the opposite side would argue that a presumably neutral technician who submits forensic analyses should not be classified as an "accuser" according to a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution. But such is not the case. The State of Illinois is arguing instead that the sheer cost of bringing more or less peripheral, technically defined accusers to court for cross examination would be prohibitive. According to the article:

"...the Supreme Court has been sharply divided on the issue. In similar cases in 2009 and earlier this year, in which I represented the defendants, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. accepted claims by state governments that, simply put, confrontation in this context costs too much. It is far more efficient, these justices contend, to let analysts simply mail their reports to court. Having to appear at trials pulls them away from their labs, and only occasionally proves more revealing than their written testimony. Hence, these justices maintain, “scarce state resources” are better committed elsewhere."

Now at first blush, one would think that abrogating an important constitutional guarantee on the basis of cost alone to be an incredibly bad idea - and the fact that four justices seem inclined to agree with it is not only mystifying, but also very disturbing. What's more, you can't view the court's divide on this issue as a difference between traditional conservative and liberal ideologies. Frankly, whenever you see Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito on the same side, you have to wonder if there's more to his animal than meets the eye.

You can find the summary of Williams v Illinois before the SCOTUS here. Skimming through the summary, you get the distinct impression that the defendant, Sandy Williams, is guilty as heck and only raised the confrontation issue as a way of trying to wiggle off the hook. From the summary:

“Overall, defendant essentially requests that we require each and every individual involved in the testing and analysis of DNA to testify at trial. For obvious reasons in the abstract and for those provided in the case at bar, we decline to issue such a ruling.”

Mr. Williams' guilt or innocence however is beside the point. You don't go around ignoring the Constitution just to convict one, clearly guilty person. But still, it seems to me this case, others like it, as well as the related issue of tort reform, raise troubling questions about the execution of justice. To wit: is it fair for a society to set limits on the amount of money it is willing to spend in pursuit of justice? After all, in every phase of law, and indeed of government itself, there is only so much money to go around. We're living in a dream world if we deny it.

Now I don't think I should have to prove by statistical evidence how sensitive our justice system is to money. People with enough money to pay for the best attorneys stand a much better chance of escaping conviction than poor people who are stuck with far less effective, court appointed lawyers. Moreover, every year, trials seem to get more and more expensive. It cost Los Angeles County 9 million dollars to prosecute O.J.!

Personally, I believe the more money we spend on determining guilt or innocence, the more likely we are to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Similarly, where "tort reform" is concerned, the more we allow for damages, the less likely businesses will be to abuse the system. However, even I have to admit that the sheer cost of obtaining true justice must certainly have some kind of limits. How much? In what cases, and under what circumstances? Good questions, these.


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