King Solomon was faced with a difficult decision. Two women appeared before him. They were roommates; both happened to be new mothers. One baby had died. Now, both women appeared before the King, fighting over the newborn baby that survived, both claiming to be his mother.
How was King Solomon going to figure out who was the real mother of this baby?
Using his kingly powers, he ordered that the baby be cut in half and divided up between the women so that each will get a piece. The true mother screamed and said, “Please don’t kill my son!…Give him to her. Just don’t kill him.” The other woman accepted the king’s decision to chop up the baby, and thought it fair.
Based on their reactions, King Solomon knew who the real mother was, and awarded the baby to the woman who begged that the baby not be killed.
Everyone in the kingdom was amazed at the wisdom of Solomon.
There is a story about Fiorello LaGuardia, beloved mayor of New York City in the 1930’s and 40’s.
As the story goes, Mayor LaGuardia would occasionally preside as a judge in night court. One day, a woman was brought in for stealing bread. She had to pay $10 or would be thrown in jail. She confessed that she stole the bread to feed her grandchildren. The shopkeeper refused to drop the charges. LaGuardia said that he could not waive the fine. But he then reached into his pocket and paid the $10 himself, and then fined “everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” $47.50 was collected for the old woman, $0.50 was paid to the shopkeeper for the bread, and LaGuardia, so the story goes, got a standing ovation from the courtroom.
No one knows for sure if the story is true or not, but it endures, as does the story of King Solomon.
King Solomon had the power to order that a baby be cut in half. LaGuardia used his power as a judge to fine everyone in a room.
In both cases, the public appreciated and applauded the raw exercise of power. Of course, this type of power, or discretion, only works if the person who has it is WISE and FAIR.
Who has discretion in our lives? We can recognize the discretion that police officers wield. I now present you with three cases:
(Indiana) Man speeds to get pregnant woman to hospital, gets arrested on the spot and misses birth. Police department backs up officers.
(New Hampshire) Man speeds to get pregnant woman to hospital, and gets police escort, but gets ticketed afterwards for speeding. Police department backs up officers.
(California) Man speeds to get pregnant woman to hospital, and gets police escort and midwifery assistance from law enforcement. No mention of any ticket. Everyone poses for post-birth photo:
(Dignity Health California Medical Center via AP)
Police department, I assume, backs up officers.
Judges in the United States courts also have discretion. They have the power to decide a case based on a number of different outcomes. The idea is that every case deserves individual attention, and the wisdom of the judge should allow for some leeway to reach the best outcome.
I now present you with three events from my own life:
Event One: I have an acquaintance, an older gentleman. He is a white-collar professional in Miami. He drives. I will call him “Harry.” Harry told me that he has a Police Benevolent Association sticker on his car. It “helps him get out of traffic tickets.” (as told to me by Harry).
Event Two: I have another acquaintance, a young lady whom I will call “Janice.” Janice’s mom is a terrible driver. She gets into accidents about once a month now. Janice’s mom is wealthy. Her German-import car is plastered with conservatively-minded political bumper stickers. When Janice’s mom gets pulled over, the law enforcement officers tell her they won’t ticket her because of her “bumper stickers.” (as told to me by Janice).
Event Three: this happened to me directly.
Several years ago, I got a traffic ticket in the mail. The ticket was issued by a red light camera installed at the intersection. The photo did show one of the family cars in the intersection as the light was red, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember the day or the event. If a police officer had issued the ticket, I would certainly remember the details.
I decided to fight it. I decided to make a constitutional argument in traffic court that the red light cameras violate the defendant’s right to confront your accuser. Because the accuser is a machine, how can you question the events leading up to your ticketing? My defense was an attack on red-light cameras in general, and not specific to me. I was prepared to take it up on appeal if I lost in traffic court.
When I arrived in traffic court in Miami-Dade, there must have been at least 100 people there, all protesting their traffic tickets. When my name was called, I identified myself. I said I was a lawyer, but not a traffic court lawyer, and I was representing myself, or pro se. Before I could present my case, this happened:
Judge: “Counselor, sit down over there.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Bailiff (smiling): “Have a seat over there.”
I sit. The Court hears all the rest of the traffic cases. No one makes a constitutional argument. No one really wins their case. The room is eventually empty. My case is the only one left.
Judge (turning to me): “You can leave.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Bailiff: “You can go. You can go.”
I leave. I never hear about my red light ticket again. I pay no fine.
We believe that we are all equal before the law. It is inscribed in the walls of our Supreme Court.
What does “Equal Justice Under Law” mean? Did King Solomon dispense justice equally? What about Mayor LaGuardia? What about the various law enforcement officers, and my traffic court judge? What is wisdom, and what is justice?
Thank you for reading.
–Elizabeth Lee Beck, Esq.