Audi alteram partem

Devotion offered at the State House, January 16, 2013

I am not a fan of Latin in the church.  It is a dead language and the church is struggling not to be dead; struggling to be an institution that can be in fruitful dialogue with other viewpoints — not so that it can foist it’s particular ideas of life on others, but so that it can participate in the great adventures of ideas that mark the genius of civilization.

To that end, I was happy to learn a new Latin tag yesterday — audi alteram partem.  You lawyers in the house recognize this as a basic principle of legal fairness — literally translated it means, “Hear the other party.”  Or, more loosely translated as a prescription, “You must listen to the alternative viewpoint.”

Pip, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, exclaims at one point that “In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice.”  It is hard to imagine that Dickens intended that line to apply only to little children.  On the contrary, we adults have to recognize that our ideas of what the good consists, and therefore our ideas about proper policy and law conflict with other well-meaning, good people.  We must recognize as a result that the old Platonic ideal of harmony, harmony within the soul and harmony within the state, is not an ideal because it is impossible.  Something else must animate our public institutions and our inner dialogues.  Audi alteram partem, legal scholars have long recognized, serves that role admirably.

Perhaps it seems strange to hear a member of the clergy argue for such a principle.  After all, we traffic in absolute truths, right?  Even listening to an alternative view, many in my field judge to be anathema.  But for two thousand years the judgement of alternative views as ipso facto illegitimate has only led to more injustice and more violence.

This fact alone, should alert us to the privilege all of us should grant, whether Christian or Muslim, Conservative or Liberal, to the idea of justice as procedural. An unjust procedure is unjust everywhere — it is unjust for Pip, it is unjust for you and it is unjust for our enemy. Ideas about the substantive content of justice — that for example, you might reasonably consider a society unjust that allows poverty to perpetuate — differ among well-intended people.

Perhaps I’ve been too serious for too long.  Let me close with a humorous look at the corollary to the principle that we must hear the other party — namely the principle that no one should be the judge of their own case.  Or, more loosely, that the perception of an unjust procedure is justice not accomplished. In other words, justice most not only be done — it must be perceived to be done.

And here’s how that’s accomplished:

A judge calls the opposing lawyers into his chambers and says, “The reason we’re here is that both you have given me a bribe.”  The lawyers squirm in their seats.  “You, Alan, have given me $15,000.  Phil, you gave me $10,000.”

The judge hands Alan a check for $5,000 and says, “Now you’re even, and I can decide the case solely on its merits.”

Well –I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone here do that.  But do, please hear the other side, and hear it well — that in so doing, we move, in the adventure of life, toward a common good.

Goodspeed in your work.


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