What Makes a Good Judge?

By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota

And the Book (of Deeds) will be placed (before you); and thou wilt see the sinful in great terror because of what is (recorded) therein; they will say, “Ah! woe to us! what a Book is this! It leaves out nothing small or great, but takes account thereof!” They will find all that they did, placed before them: And not one will thy Lord treat with injustice. (Quran 18:49)

fedwa wazwaz

There is a story attributed to Abu Hurairah, a seventh-century narrator of hadith. He told of a cleaner who lived during the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him.

It happened that the Prophet noticed this cleaner was suddenly missing from the mosque. When he was told the cleaner had died, the Prophet asked: “Why didn’t you inform me?” It seemed that the Prophet’s companions had found the matter trivial, but the Prophet went to the cleaner’s grave to offer prayers.

In this story, we learn about the attentions of the truly just—the sort of person who would be a good judge. The Prophet didn’t say: Was this person a high-achiever? Did they go to Yale? This person’s worth, for the Prophet, didn’t rest on having reached a particular station in life, nor having put together a stunning CV.

Although ways of measuring human worth have changed, much has stayed the same. It is important for us to remember that innocence and guilt are not built on a person’s place in the social hierarchy.

When US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate about the charges laid against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, many people had already made up their minds about him. People were either in camp “I believe him” or “I believe her.” But we learn a lot more by listening to his testimony and trying to judge him on the evidence before us.

Repeatedly, Kavanaugh stated in his defense: he was a hard worker, he went to Yale, he studied a lot. For instance, during the September 27 hearing, in response to a question about overconsumption of alcohol, Kavanaugh said, “Senator, I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.”

Success doesn’t prove innocence

Kavanaugh did indeed attend Yale College. And while it seems he lied when suggesting he had “no connections there”—his grandfather was a Yalie—going to Yale is hardly a mark of shame. Yet the problem is not that Kavanaugh went to Yale. The problem is that he’s suggesting his time at Yale demonstrates innocence.

There have been many people who justify their abuse of others by saying, “But I’m a high achiever!” We often accept this logic in daily discourse. For instance, scientist Richard Dawkins said there was a lack of Nobel Prizes among Muslim scientists to support his opposition to contemporary Muslims. Dr. Dawkins also tweeted about 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a boy who was detained and questioned because he had brought a clock he’d built to school. Mohamed was called “Clock Boy” in the popular media.

Dawkins’ argument against the boy wasn’t that children shouldn’t be allowed to build clocks. It was that Ahmed Mohamed’s clock wasn’t particularly sophisticated. Dawkins dubbed the boy “Hoax Boy.”

We cannot prove that Kavanaugh is guilty or innocent of sexually assaulting Dr. Ford. Based on what was presented at the hearings, we don’t have sufficient evidence. But Kavanaugh’s statements about himself are in themselves concerning. If being a high achiever proves innocence, then what does being a low achiever prove?

How will Kavanaugh look at cases of immigrant workers and other vulnerable people? Those from marginalized groups are often perceived as more likely to commit violence. Kavanaugh showed no sign of sympathizing with them, or with anyone outside of the elite.

What the Senate hearings revealed about Kavanaugh is not the complete truth of whether or not he assaulted Dr. Ford. What it revealed is what he believes about justice.

Unlikability doesn’t prove guilt, either.

Sometimes, we come across people in this world who we passionately dislike. We may find them loud, obnoxious, and irritating. Indeed, they may be loud, obnoxious, and irritating! But we can’t use our feelings about them to rationalize accusations. We must step back from their unlikability and look at the facts as dispassionately as possible. It is possible for someone to be a jerk and be innocent or sexually assaulted. It’s equally possible for someone to be charming, kind, and loveable—yet be guilty.

This is something the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, taught his followers. Once, a man came to claim his rights. As he did, he spoke in an abusive manner, and was so belligerent with the Prophet that his companion Omar ibn Al-Khattab wanted to strike the man. Yet the Prophet admonished Omar. He addressed the man’s rights first, before he addressed his aggressive behavior and tone.

Anger is okay, but…

Some people mocked Kavanaugh for his expressions of anger during his September 27 hearing. But anger, in and of itself, shouldn’t be a disqualifier, and shaming people for their anger isn’t healthy. People who have been the victims of a crime, for instance, have a right to feel angry. It’s easy for us to forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by anger at the treatment of African Americans. But he recognized this anger, and he used it to organize and transform.

Marginalized people are often shamed for expressing anger in public. We don’t want to do the same to Kavanaugh. But we can ask questions about his anger.

Is this anger related to a particularly unjust event?

Does this anger prompt him to take action to correct a wrong?

Is the angry person concerned primarily for their own status, or for others?

So: what sort of anger is Kavanaugh’s? Of course, we can’t get inside his head. But it seems that this anger was primarily about himself, on his own behalf. He did not express anger about sexual assault, or about the abuse of women, or about other injustices. Instead, it seemed that his anger was about how he, personally, might be denied a job.

What could a good judge have said?

Most—if not all—of us have made mistakes. Most—if not all—of us have done things we now regret.

If Kavanaugh did attack Dr. Ford, he could have admitted this and asked: “How can I repair the harm?”

If he knew for certain that he didn’t attack Dr. Ford, then he could have talked about how he, as a judge, has dealt with the crime of sexual assault. He could also have talked about how he’ll deal with it as a Supreme Court judge. He should have shown that he empathized and identified with the victims of sexual assault. All that was missing from his statements.

It’s exceptionally important that a judge be able to identify with all sorts of different people: those in power and those who are not. If a judge has no way to identify with people who are different, then how will he be able to properly express and uphold the law?

Anger is an important and healthy emotion. However, a judge also has to be able to take a step back from their personal emotions. A judge must be able to give everyone their rights, including the marginalized.

‘I made it’

Throughout the hearings, Kavanaugh talked about himself and what he’s achieved in life, but also how hard he worked to achieve it. He said:

“I busted my butt in academics. I always tried to do the best I could.

“I worked very hard in college, in my studies, and I also played basketball, I did sports and I also did socialize.”

“I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

Yet what does “busting your butt” have to do with being a Supreme Court judge? Kavanaugh is speaking here as though he’s applying for a position as a CEO, not a position that requires him to relate to the people of the country. At the hearing, Kavanaugh had an opportunity to talk about how he wanted to serve the American people. But saying “I got it” and “I worked very hard” and “I busted my butt” doesn’t suggest he’s seeking to help the American people, nor that he intends to use his skills in the service of others.

In the end, Kavanaugh might or might not be guilty of the particular assault accusations leveled against him. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, we can say she is a credible witness, and that we believe her. We can’t say he is, in a legal sense, guilty of sexual assault. When we judge an issue—for we all act as judges sometimes—we must examine it from as many sides as possible, accept we might be in error ourselves, and try to get at the truth rather than please or find fault with others.

We can learn from these hearings: about critical thinking, about treating others with respect, and about talking to teens about sexual assault. As Anita Hill said, we cannot offer results, but we can offer a fair and thorough process. Even if, in the end, we don’t have enough evidence to say whether Kavanaugh is guilty of this particular act, it doesn’t mean Dr. Ford is lying or should be silent. It only means we can’t definitively judge guilt about the event in question.

What we can say is: Kavanaugh is unqualified to be a Supreme Court judge, or any judge at all.

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US.  She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota.  She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking.  She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.  She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

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© Copyright 2005-2018.  Fedwa Wazwaz, All rights reserved.

About engagemn

A Voice for Minnesotan Muslims

Posted on October 2, 2018, in Engage Minnesota, Fedwa Wazwaz and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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