It’s a Court System, Not a Justice System

It’s a Court System, Not a Justice System July 15, 2013

Years ago, in the midst of my divorce, I was sitting in therapy, again bemoaning the injustices of divorce in Minnesota. I was beyond frustrated at the lack of enforcement of court orders, at the assumption that moms are better parents than dads, and that no one seemed to think that my case was as urgent as I thought it was.

“Stop calling it the ‘Family Justice System,'” my therapist said.

“What?” I asked. “That’s what it’s called.”

“I know,” she responded, “But it’s not about justice, at least not as you understand justice. I suggest that you instead refer to it as the ‘Family Court System.'”

And so, I have. For the past five years, I’ve disciplined myself to call it the Family Court System and the Hennepin County Family Court Building (even though, as you can see in the photo above, the county has not followed suit).

As an Enneagram 8, justice is a driving force for me — maybe the driving force. (Nota bene, I don’t claim that my sense of justice is perfect, nor that I always see justice rightly.) So a lack of justice really gets under my skin — I’ve often described the process of getting divorced (with kids involved) in Hennepin County like being caught in a dream, one where you’re in danger and screaming at the top of your lungs, but no sound is coming out of your throat, and everyone just goes about their own business, unable to hear you.

I think there are a lot of people in our country who feel the same way this weekend, after the George Zimmerman acquittal. The death of Trayvon Martin has seemingly gone unpunished (however, there are more lawsuits pending against him, the federal government is considering charging him, and he will surely be a pariah for decades to come).

I am no expert in criminal legal matters. But I know what it’s like to be involved in our court system. I know the frustration of being caught in a web of legal technicalities and a byzantine bureaucracy. I know what it’s like to be completely reliant upon high-priced attorneys to wade through that thicket.

Ours is not a justice system. It’s a court system. If we can discipline ourselves to acknowledge that, it will benefit our mental health.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep fighting for justice. We should. Indeed, we need to, for Trayvon and for children who don’t get to see their fathers and for others who are caught in the system that is a court system and not a justice system. But we need to be realistic about the ability of our court system to deliver justice, and we need to look for other avenues of justice in our society.

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  • Scott L

    I’m sorry, your feelings about your divorce are the same as the feelings people are having about the stalking and shooting of an unarmed child?


    • My god, Scott. Seriously, that’s what you think I’m doing with this post? Of course I’m not equating my divorce with killing or gun violence. I’m saying that I’ve learned that our court system is not the place to find justice.

      Maybe you need to find other blogs to read.

      • Deborah Smith

        This article was recommended to me and yes, I too felt you were comparing your experiences with the court system during your divorce as those who had lost children to gun violence. Your bitterness about your divorce comes through loud and clear. It clouds most of your blog.

        • I didn’t read the post that way, Deborah and Scott. I read it as something like this: “I’ve experienced the frustration of a justice system that doesn’t deliver justice. And here is some wisdom which has helped me deal with it without becoming utterly cynical and giving up on the fight for justice.”
          I thought it was an excellent post. As a Brit, I’m only vaguely aware of the issues surrounding this case. I heard an interview on the radio a day or so ago where the sense of frustration at the legal system was palpable.

  • tanyam

    I agree, we need to be realistic, but I hope we don’t have more Christians go off on the “never mind, it’ll be all right in heaven” trip. Because (your story exempted) the justice system does mostly work for white, middle class people. All we ask is that it work just as nicely (no more, and no less) for people of color, and yes, for men in family court.

    • You’re right. And, if I’m really being honest, my frustration was probably exacerbated by my own internal (privileged) sense that it was supposed to work for me. I had everything together, and a good lawyer. And it still didn’t work.

      Tragically, for so many others, they walk into a courtroom with a predetermined sense that it will not work for them.

  • Laura

    That’s it. We want the court system to remedy our sin. Racism is sin. And as a Christian I’m committed to helping free people from the systems of sin – both our own and societal. One friend commented to me (quoting MLK), how important the law is: “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
    But the law still won’t change the nature of our sin. And that too is the foundation of justice.

  • Jason Robbins

    Thought-provoking post, Tony. While I, too, am no expert on the legal system, I know many who have served on a jury. It seems that in that room, behind closed doors, is where the true battle begins. If you have lived any significant time on this earth, you know that getting six people to agree on anything is a huge challenge. In this society we have agreed to be judged by our peers. There are certainly good and bad outcomes of this particular type of justice.

  • I faced the same issues with my divorce. Even as the custodial parent and a single dad the system was slanted toard the mother and ignored the best interest of the child. You’re right: it’s a court system. Somtimes it works, but it’s human and flawed.

  • Beorn


    I respectfully disagree. I think justice was served in this case despite a preponderance of the media trying to railroad the defendant. If Zimmerman was profiling Trayvon to hunt him down, why would he wait until he was beaten bloody before he acted maliciously? The outcome was truly tragic, but it does fall well within the rubric of self defense if Zimmerman thought he “was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury.” If you don’t like the outcome, you will need to change the law.

    Which leads me to one of the most insightful comments on this case by John Althouse Cohen: “Prediction: the Zimmerman verdict will lead to amendments to penal codes across the country to make it easier for prosecutors to win convictions, causing even more blacks to be incarcerated.”


      He acted maliciously by going against police instructions and assaulting Trayvon in the first place. Trayvon was the one acting in self-defense. “Stand Your Ground” is a remarkably venal law designed by nihilists at the NRA.

      • Beorn

        How exactly did Zimmerman “assault […] Trayvon in the first place”?

        The only wounds on Trayvon’s body before the shooting were on his knuckles. Was George Zimmerman repeatedly assaulting Trayvon’s fists with his face?

        • Eric

          The legal definition of assault is “the threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm.” In my book, being aggressively pursued by a large, armed man in the dark would certainly constitute both a threat and ability to cause bodily harm. Who actually threw the first punch is irrelevant.

          • Beorn

            There was only one person “throwing punches” (battery) according to the evidence, not just a “first punch.” If you believe that Trayvon was justified in throwing those punches in response to being followed then you are actually advocating that he had a right to stand his ground.

            • Eric

              Yes, I do think Trayvon had the right to “stand his ground” and defend himself against a stranger who was aggressively pursuing him despite his efforts to run away. What would you have done if you had been in Trayvon’s position? Remember, Zimmerman took the role of aggressor when he pursued Trayvon (despite being explicitly told not to by the police). Behavior of this sort likely triggered a fight or flight response which, with his pursuit of Trayvon, dramatically increased the chances of a physical confrontation.

              Do we have the right to provoke a fight and then use deadly force when it doesn’t go our way? Granted, I can see that neither party knew the motivations of the other, and they both assumed the worst, with tragic results. However, Zimmerman took the role of a vigilante. When he first saw Trayvon, neither his life nor his property was at risk. As a member of the neighborhood watch, his job was to observe and to report suspicious activity to the police. Period. Instead, he took unnecessary aggressive actions that ultimately ended with the killing of Trayvon. Was he guilty of murder? Not from my understanding of the case. However, the shooting would not have occurred without his reckless actions, and so I think a charge of manslaughter would have fit the bill.

              • Beorn

                You give Trayvon the right to stand his ground, but not GZ – a glaring inconsistency. You condemn GZ for taking “unnecessary aggressive actions”, but you excuse Trayvon’s unnecessary aggressive actions – another glaring inconsistency.

                GZ did not use deadly force when it wasn’t “going his way.” The evidence corroborates his testimony that he was getting the crap beat out of him. He also stated that Trayvon threatened to kill him that night. The veracity of his statements were not contravened by subsequent polygraph tests.

                This is not vigilantism no matter how you try to spin the facts. If it were vigilantism, one could not be satisfied with simple manslaughter charges.

                But Al Sharpton has called the tune, and many have chosen to dance…

                • Eric

                  I don’t doubt that Zimmerman had reason to fear for his life when he was getting beaten. However, he is responsible for the aggressive actions he took that
                  provoked the fight in the first place.

                  When Zimmerman first saw Martin, he reacted appropriately by calling the police and reporting
                  him as a suspicious person. Beyond continuing to observe from a distance until the police arrived, that is all he should have done. When Martin became spooked and decided to run, Zimmerman decided to play Junior
                  Superhero and give chase, which ultimately ended in a tragic shooting.

                  The reason I don’t fault Martin for attacking Zimmerman is that he had already tried to run away, but Zimmerman got out of his car and chased him down. We’ll never know what was going through Martin’s mind at that moment, but I think it is reasonable to assume he was in fight-or-flight
                  mode. When Zimmerman’s pursuit removed flight as a viable option, that would have left “fight” as the most likely course of action.

                  Calling Martin’s actions to defend himself “unnecessary” simply because Zimmerman hadn’t yet physically assaulted him is essentially denying the right to self
                  defense against threatening behavior. Martin didn’t know
                  who was chasing him, only that someone had followed him in a car and then gotten out and chased him on foot when he tried to run away. Considering the high crime rate in the neighborhood, it wouldn’t be surprising if he had
                  assumed the worst from Zimmerman’s actions. Being followed in a car is intimidating. Being chased on foot makes it personal.

                  During the fight, I don’t doubt that both of the men feared for their lives. However, Zimmerman is the one whose actions provoked the confrontation to begin with, and the one who should bear responsibility for its outcome.

                  I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by bringing up Al Sharpton. I consider him as big a blowhard as Rush Limbaugh and generally ignore anything that comes out of his mouth.

                  • Beorn

                    There is no evidence that Trayvon ” tried to run away.” In fact, the evidence suggests he doubled back and jumped GZ, who stated he eventually lost sight of Trayvon in his 911 call to the dispatcher (not the police).

                    Also, Trayvon did not reside in Sanford. He lived in Miami, where he attended Krop High School until he was suspended for possession of a bag of women’s jewelry (Trayvon had been suspended twice before from the school). During his suspension he was visiting his father’s girlfriend in Sanford.

                    A perusal of Trayvon’s online posts reveal a misogynistic young man who was interested in making and consuming Lean. He had 2 of the 3 ingredients necessary to make Lean on that night (Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail – not “iced tea” – and Skittles). His autopsy revealed minor liver damage consistent with consumption of Lean. Trayvon was also training intensely for MMA in the weeks prior to the event; training he seems to have put to use against GZ.

                    GZ stated in his 911 call that Trayvon was acting like he was on drugs, a statement corroborated by toxicology reports that showed the presence of marijuana in Trayvon’s system.

                    So in the end you have a wannabe-gangsta, and a wannabe-cop. You seem more sympathetic to the wanna-be gangsta. I think they both bear responsibility, but I don’t think GZ deserves to go to jail. And six jurors who heard all of the testimony have come to the same conclusion.

                • matybigfro

                  Beorn, TRAYVON IS NOT< WAS NOT < AND CANNOT BE ON TRIAL, THE ONLY PERSON ON TRIAL IS ZIMMERMAN. It's not a double standard it's how we make decisions on whether somone's actions in killing someone are lawfull.

      • Guest

        wrong. wrong. wrong. what trial did you watch/follow sir?? you’re embarrassing yourself.

        (1) the police didn’t instruct him to do or not do anything for he DIDN’T TALK TO THE POLICE. he spoke to the 911 operator (not the police) who said to him verbatim “we don’t need you to that” which even the prosecution admitted was ambiguous.

        (2) there’s nothing malicious about getting out of one’s car and following somebody acting suspiciously. at all. i would do the same thing. if you lived in a crime ridden neighborhood i suspect you would too.

        (3) “stand your ground” HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH this case. the defense never raised it and for a very good reason. SYG only applies if one has the ability to retreat and chooses not to, hence, to stand your ground. when gz is pinned down on his back and getting his head beaten, he has no duty to retreat because HE HAS NO ABILITY TO RETREAT, thus it was a case of classic self-defense.

        you are entitled to your own opinion sir. you are not entitled to your own facts.

  • karla from CO

    It’s astounding to me how many bloggers, ‘journalists’, broadcasters, Facebook posters and twitterers think that because THEY believe Zimmerman is guilty – based on what? Newspapers and TV reports that slanted and twisted what they put out the public? – that justice wasn’t served.

    How do you propose to change the system to make it do what you want it to do?

    You weren’t there, you don’t know George Zimmerman – a middle class Latino who was worried about break-ins in his neighborhood, not a middle class white-supremacy guy – and you didn’t know Trayvon Martin – not an innocent child skipping down the sidewalk but a 17-year-old with some serious strikes on his school records. Yet you moan and whine and insist that justice wasn’t served.

    I know there is still horrible racism in this country – on BOTH sides of the fence, mind you; just look at some twitter feeds from the last several months – but to say that you believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that “Woe is me! Justice lost again!” is ludicrous.

    • toddh

      I don’t have to know either one of them to know that it is wrong to chase someone down, assault them, and when they fight back, kill them. Maybe that’s the kind of country you want to live in. I don’t.

      • karla from CO

        I want to live in a country where the general public does flaunt opinions as fact and does not convict a person based on biased, inflamed media demagoguery, without first gathering factual information from numerous sources. I thought lynching went out of style years ago.

        NBC admitted to showing altered video of Zimmerman early-on in the whole mess – they edited out his head injuries from having his head beaten against the pavement. Other media brainiacs repeatedly aired photos of Martin as an 11-year-old, sweet-faced child, not the 6′ 2″ young man that Zimmerman saw that night. Both of these incidents were highly inflammatory and extremely misleading – for what reason I ask. For. What. Reason? You very obviously learned your “”facts”” from this type of liberal-agenda media brainwashing.

        Zimmerman had ceased trying to talk to Martin and had hung up from talking to the dispatcher. He was a returning to his vehicle after Martin ran from him. Martin became the aggressor when he approached Zimmerman from behind and confronted him, then punched him in the face as Zimmerman was trying to make another call on his phone. When Zimmerman fell down after being punched, Martin jumped on him – he continued punching him and also beat Zimmerman’s head against the sidewalk. Martin’s blood and urine both tested positive from marijuana, supporting Zimmerman’s words to the dispatcher that he appeared to be on drugs.

        Want any more facts to deny? Try these…

        • smrnda

          I still think following a person is your car is behavior that any person would consider threatening. It’s not something that I’d like to be on the receiving end of, and even if someone is ostensibly concerned about crime in their neighborhood, for all the abuses of the police, letting anyone just go on patrol and start trailing people in a vehicle that’s not marked as any sort of official law enforcement vehicle seems to be a bad idea.

          The laws are what they are, and the US suffers from a fascination with guns and vigilantism.

          Being followed by a car at night is pretty scary. Just thought I would add that since it seems to be something that about everybody ignores.

        • PAUL RACK

          Zimmerman was the aggressor as soon as he got out of his car with a gun.

        • PAUL RACK

          Oh, and those two sites so devoted to “facts” also deny global warming.

          • karla from CO

            Climate change has….what???? …to do with this subject??
            I know, the facts don’t fit your narrative, therefore they’re “wrong”

            • PAUL RACK

              I was discrediting the sources. But I apologize. I forgot that conservatives have facts and everyone else has “narratives.”

      • Guest

        mr. rack, did you watch/follow the trial? because your summary of the events IS NOT what was proven in court and discussed ad nauseum by the legal analysts all over the media. if you start with false facts and an incorrect premise, it’s no surprise you reach the wrong conclusion. you are entitled to your own opinion sir, as we all are. you are not entitled to your own facts.

        • PAUL RACK

          Sorry. I was following the case where Zimmerman got out of the car with a loaded gun. My bad.


    My experience with our legal system is that it has nothing to do with justice at all, and is more influenced by principles like billable hours, butt-covering, and what’s good for the careers of lawyers and judges. In other words it is indeed a “court” system because it serves the interests of the court and those connected to it, not the people.

  • Geri Foss

    Thank you for this enlightening post. We cannot always get the justice that we want in a court system.

  • Patrick

    The jury found that a kid was viciously beating an adult and the adult shot him to save his life. What both people did before isn’t material. All 50 states have the same laws on this matter: you have a right to defend your life if you are about to be killed.