Monday, April 18, 2016

Of justice and mercy

Most people I know who have gone to law school come out hating the profession of law. Some practice for awhile, just long enough to pay off their loans. Many never practice. A very few stick it out and get lucky enough to do well for themselves, though perhaps not much for anyone else. Sadly, though a viable social order requires a reliable rule of law, most people who immerse themselves in the system become some combination of bored, jaundiced, embittered, or cynical.

Bryan Stevenson smelled the danger as early as second year in law school. But when he began an internship with Steve Bright at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, he realized he was in the company of someone who "showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believed that I'd seen in so many of my law professors." Through the SPDC, he found himself meeting poor black death row prisoners who taught him that everyone possesses unique humanity, deserving of respect and legal justice. He learned what Sister Helen Prejean has said

“people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives”

And so Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, the EJI defends death row prisoners, works to end the jailing of children, and struggles against mass incarceration of poor and black people. From its beginnings as an underfunded non-profit startup, EJI has become an authentic people's law firm with nearly 50 staff working for justice throughout the South and beyond.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is the story of Stevenson's personal odyssey within a hostile legal system, the poor people whose cry for justice became his animating inspiration and bulwark, and what has been accomplished through smart lawyering and grit. He summarizes what experience has taught him:

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. ... it's necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and perhaps -- we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

Justice and mercy are often understood as warring opposites. Stevenson tries to show by way of true stories that nothing is that simple, that we are all human together whether we like it or not.

Don't take my word for it. Here's a book blurb from one of the greatest leaders of justice struggles alive among us, the Rev. Desmond Tutu:

Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy.

I read this book by ear; Stevenson was his own reader and I highly recommend the audio version.

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