Friday, July 23, 2010

Our Wonderland Legal System

'Consider your verdict,' the King said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.
'There's more evidence to come yet, please your Majesty,' said the White Rabbit.
'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first - verdict afterwards.'
'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'
'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.
'I won't!' said Alice.
'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

Two legal cases in the news this week caught my attention. Both show our legal system in a bad light, where strict adherence to law is at least unwise and at worst, outrageous.

After the jump, our own adventures in Wonderland.

First is a story from Dallas that illustrates the perversity of our legal system. Here's the background. Years ago, the US Supreme Court banned the use of the death penalty against the mentally retarded. Today, there is new evidence that a Texas murderer on death row is mentally retarded. On the surface, this is another case that seems to be cut-and-dried. The death sentence is unconstitutional and needs to be commuted. Not so fast, says the court. There's a Catch-22. The murderer has exhausted his allowed number of appeal. The court says it cannot consider any new evidence unless it is likely to prove the murderer was innocent. No one is claiming that, so the evidence of mental retardation is not allowable and the defendant remains on death row. In rejecting the new appeal, the judge said, "We today have no choice but to condone just such an unconstitutional punishment."

Second is a story from Austin about a Sikh religious group who has been told by a court to either move or tear down their temple. It turns out it was built in a residential neighborhood where deed restrictions limit construction to residences. On first glance, the case seems cut-and-dried. The temple does violate the deed restriction. The deed restrictions don't discriminate against Sikhs or even religion. It's a simple zoning case that doesn't impact freedom of religion. Where it gets complicated for me is in deciding the proper remedy. Construction permits should never have been granted in the first place. Given that the Sikhs applied for and received permits from the city zoning commission and city council and that no opposition was expressed at public meetings, it seems draconian to require the Sikhs to tear down the temple now. A sideshow worth watching for will be the reaction at the state and national levels. Are the Sikhs being treated differently than if they were Christians?

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