Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Annual Akron Red Mass & Luncheon
May 6, 2011

For hundreds of years, lawyers and judges have gathered at the Red Mass to honor St. Thomas More but also to renew their commitment of service to the rule of law and justice

It’s a time to reflect and seek guidance about the awesome responsibility that we each carry with respect to the legal profession as a whole and toward the individual members of society that depend on a system of justice that’s fair and impartial.

Each of us has taken an oath to uphold the highest ideals of the profession.

We judges have sworn to administer justice faithfully and concluded our oath by stating we answer to God.

That concept of justice is one of the most ancient and universal known to man. It influences everything we do as lawyers and judges.

Scripture is filled with themes of justice and judging.

We can hear similarities between a judge’s oath of office and Deuteronomy Chapter 16, verses 18 and 19, which states:

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.”

This particular theme was revisited in 2nd Chronicles, Chapter 19, verses 5 through 10:

He (Jehoshaphat) appointed judges in the land, in each of the fortified cities of Judah. He told them, ‘Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the LORD, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. Now let the fear of the LORD be on you. Judge carefully, for with the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.’”

But perhaps the following story with a powerful message will serve as the best reminder to us all who serve in the legal profession. Consider the book of Micah in the Old Testament.

Micah was a prophet in the eighth century before Christ, and the book is written to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, just before and just after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

For the most part, it’s a book of warnings in chapters one through three, and hope in chapters four, five and seven. But the sixth chapter includes this image and exchange between God and the people, with God employed as the Judge.

God brings a complaint against his people. He wants the world to know the good he has done for his people, but, somehow, they haven’t responded appropriately.

God indicts his people for a breach of their covenant.

Micah speaks on behalf of the community asking what they can do to get back on God’s good side.

It builds to Chapter 6, verse 8, where very simply but very eloquently, it says:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”

I cite this book, chapter and verse because of the intersection of justice, mercy and humility and because we in the legal profession are charged with administering justice (to act justly).

But in the same breath, compassion is key to any justice, or it merely becomes revenge and retribution (to love mercy).

And for all of us, we must recognize our place in the justice system that is under God (to walk humbly).

We live by God’s justice and mercy, and so any justice and mercy we dispense comes from God and is not merely on our own.

If we fail to love mercy and be merciful and to walk humbly with God, then we actually fail to act justly.

Of course, justice and judging is a universal concept not limited to Christianity, as these themes regularly appear in the texts of other religions too. As I said previously justice is a theme that is both ancient and universal.

In the Torah, the third of the five books of Moses, includes verse 15 of chapter 19 of Leviticus, which states:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

In verse 58 of the fourth chapter of the Quran, it states:

Allah commands that you should render back the trusts to those to whom they are due; and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice.”

And in one of the most ancient of all religious texts, the Buddha said to his followers:

Animosity does not eradicate animosity. Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved. This law is ancient and eternal.”

From Christianity to Judaism to Islam to Buddhism, each religion speaks of the universality, desire for and the necessity of justice.

That is not to say that the definition of justice is not sometimes perverted.  Like beauty, justice can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder...at least they call it justice.  That is exactly what happened in St. Thomas More’s life.  His king, Henry VIII, in the name of justice, imprisoned and executed the saint for failing to obey the king’s law.

The trouble with the king’s law was that it conflicted with God’s law. There is no injustice in failing to obey an unjust law. Thomas More knew that and knew that if he obeyed the king he would be guilty of disobeying God. To Thomas that was the antithesis of justice, and he was willing to give his life for that belief.

I dare say that few if any of us will be called upon to give our lives to uphold the justice of God’s law.

That’s not what we should take away from the lesson of Thomas More’s life. What matters is that we seek justice in the everyday opportunities that present themselves.  It is just to be kind to others. Just to be generous and tolerant.  Just to strangers as well as family and friend. Sometimes it’s easier to be kind to strangers than those who are part of our lives every day. 

It is just to forgive, and it is just to be responsible and accountable. It is just to be honest and forthright.  All of these opportunities present themselves to us daily if not hourly.

Will the example of St. Thomas More serve to remind us in our work and personal lives to act justly?  I hope so.

Thank you and God bless.