Monitoring justice: perspectives on the law, the courts, and society

Human justice: often complex, sometimes fragile, and involving troublesome tradeoffs or compromises. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn found this out. Huck struggled with his sense of values after helping his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape. The right thing was to turn Jim over to the authorities. But ''what's the use you learning to do right,'' Huck reasoned, ''when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?''

What was the proper human action? Break the law, free slaves, help runaways? Or abide by the law (even though one knew it was an immoral one) and wait for the chance to change it?

Sharon Irish, who refers to Huck's dilemma in an article on justice in an American Bar Association publication, uses this tale to stress that for him morality and the law were intertwined.

A century later, although slavery (at least in its most obvious forms) had long since been abolished in the US, justice for the black man still sorely lags. ''End segregation'' echoed through civil rights protests in the South in the 1950s. A few years later, sit-ins against the Vietnam war, refusal to register for the draft, and massive antinuclear demonstrations characterized matter-of-conscience civil disobedience to what many consider unjust governmental actions or policies.

So is breaking of the law justified in certain instances? Or is lawlessness, regardless of motives, still lawlessness? What constitutes justice? And how is it most judiciously administered?

Underlying these, however, is a deeper question: Just what is justice?

Reader's Digest Family Legal Guide suggests it is ''the fair and equal treatment of all persons under the law.'' The Figgie Report, a recently released study on ''How the Fear of Crime Changes the Way We Live'' indicates that the public views justice in a variety of ways - ranging from ''an eye for an eye'' to a ''square deal'' to a ''fifty-fifty chance.''

Actually, there's a quiet revolution going on in respect to the public's outlook on justice in America. And it's pulling in several directions:

* From some quarters there's a cry for shoring up the formal judicial system - more judges, more courts, speedier trials, broader access of the poor and minorities to the courtroom.

* Others want less judicial input, particularly in matters that involve such social values as capital punishment, abortion, and school prayer. In fact, they would specifically limit the jurisdiction of the courts in these areas.

* Still others would hark back to Puritan days when many communities - religious sects, immigrants, businessmen among them - found ways of settling disputes without going to court.

This weekly column will look at various aspects of justice: formal justice, litigated and administered by the courts; informal justice, including settlement of disputes through arbitration, mediation, and community resolution; family and personal justice achieved through dialogue and a meeting of minds, and fostered by understanding and mutual respect.

The issues here range from women's rights to children's rights, from victims' rights to prisoners' rights. We will also look at constitutional protections in the areas of privacy and freedom of speech and religion - as well as public responsibility in this area. We will examine the role of the police in protecting society; the role of government in providing assistance for the indigent; the responsibility of communities to equitably distribute public services to all citizens; a need for individuals to help one another, particularly in time of stress.

We won't confine ourselves to court decisions, but we certainly won't ignore those legal rulings that have significant bearing on justice for the individual. We also want to stress new concepts and ideas that may lead to increased equality and fair treatment for all segments of the populace. And we would welcome hearing from readers about successful projects or experiments which are fostering a broader sense of justice in human affairs.

A final thought: In order for justice to be meaningful, it must be intertwined with equality. Woodrow Wilson said: ''Unless justice be done to others, it will not be done to us.'' Perhaps a variation on the golden rule - but an important one.

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