61 years ago today I was the Bar Mitzvah bocher – stood in this synagogue, different –sanctuary, different congregants (some of whom I dearly miss every day) but same biblical passage Parashas Shoftim – “Law and Justice”.
I come from a family of lawyers – a father and three uncles – and today I have four cousins who are attorneys – not lawyers in name only but all with boots on the courtroom ground – Cousin Fred Luper (bankruptcy expert), his daughter Judge Betsy Luper-Schuster, Stan Wolk (defense insurance – he can get you an autograph from the Geico gecko), and recently deceased Marc Gertner (one of the nationally known experts on ERISA law).
My father, Abraham Gertner, was a summa cum laude graduate of Ohio State Law School, and founder of the Law Journal. He ran the cram course for the Ohio bar exam from 1935 to 1961, tried the Neal House workers’ strike case in the 50’s , and became a Federal Administrative Law Judge. He also was National president of the Jewish Law Fraternity, Tau Epsilon Rho (which he later helped integrate – by race, by gender, and by religion).
My parents decided that one of their children would be a lawyer and since they had only one child it was me. So with a birthday of 8/26/41 – what better parashas than Shoftim. I was worried about the bar exam before I was in the first grade.
Last year on the 60th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah Maftir I was here and heard the D’Var Torah. I was upset that the D’Var Torah, which dealt with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, focused on law and not justice, so the Rabbi told me I could give this year’s D’Var Torah.
My credentials are that I went to OSU law school, was a law clerk for an Ohio Supreme Court judge, a legislative assistant in Washington to a United State Senator from Ohio, William B. Saxbe, and an assistant United States Attorney in Washington DC.
Since then I, have practiced law in Columbus for 40 years trying cases both civil and criminal, jury trials in both State and Federal court. I’ve argued before the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Federal Sixth Circuit court of Appeals in Cincinnati and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C.
I only had the privilege of trying one case with my father and in that case I objected to one of his questions. Judge O’Grady stopped the case, called us both up in front of the jury and with a big smile said “you and you are on the same side” and pointing to me said “you cannot object to his questions” and everyone laughed. By the way, we won the case.
Upon reflection, I have concluded that I have devoted my life to the pursuit of justice. I represented the disabled, the injured, and those that have been wrongly and unjustly accused of crime. To me justice is not about contracts and securities law . . . it’s about helping people who are unable to help themselves.
After reflecting on my many years of law practice and since last year’s D’Var Torah, I’m haunted to whether I’ve stayed true to Shoftim. The establishment of just courts with righteous judgment. I submit that the commandment to pursue justice goes beyond the legal system – to pursue justice and make the world a better place.
What is justice?
- Equal treatment under the law
- Even handedness
- The process or result of using laws to fairly judge crimes, and criminals, and reward full and fair compensation to the injured
- The glue that holds society together that people get what is right, just and lawful.
- The personification of this usually is a blindfolded goddess holding scales of justice and a sword and the scales are even.
- Throughout the ages this question – What is justice- has been raised by some of the great philosophers. Socrates said that if he was forced to choose between his conscious and the law, he would follow his conscious and drink the hemlock – poison
- Jefferson said, when a government does not reach these ends, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it”.
- The best example currently is the book, movie, play Les Miserable. When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserable, he never would have thought that a musical play and movie would be made of such a serious subject as whether a man should do hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and then be hounded for it all of his life. That is the reason that Jauvert hounded Jean Val Jean. Because in Jauvert’s words “the law she must be obeyed”. He didn’t say the “righteous law”, he didn’t say “justice”, he said, “the law” and the book proves him wrong. Realizing his error, Jauvert drowned himself at the end of the book.
The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies states that Moses and Jeremiah consider justice and compassion to be the sine qua non of any true religiosity. One cannot claim to love God and not be passionate about justice. That is the primary Jewish contribution to the human spirit.”
We, as Jews, can be proud of what we have accomplished. There used to be a “Jewish seat” on the United State Supreme Court: Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo, Louis Brandeis, Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas. Now we are less than 2% of the population of the United States and have 33% of the Supreme Court Justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
When the Supreme Court decided that it was ready to rule that the right to counsel applied to all Americans whether state or federal, the chief justice of the United States called Abe Fortas and said, “You are representing Gideon in Gideon vs. Wainwright that was the forerunner to the Maranda decision.
Barry Scheck, professor of law at the Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, has devoted his legal career to the “innocence project” getting people on death row tested for DNA and if exonerated released from prison. There is still work to be done. NBC reported last Saturday that 75 inmates had been released so far this year because they were wrongly convicted. Last year there were 125 exonerations.
How can you pursue justice if you are not a lawyer?
- Stay informed. 30% of Americans can identify the name Homer Simpson and less than 1% can identify Thurgood Marshall.
- My grandfather, Morris Gertner, may he rest in peace, was chairman of the board of this synagogue when it located at the corner of Washington and Donaldson. In those days the men sat downstairs and the women and children were upstairs. The congregants purchased their seats. My grandfather took some of the seats away up front and gave them to the pious who could not afford to purchase a seat.
- My father, may he rest in peace, integrated by race, religion and sex, the national Jewish law fraternity, Tau Epsilon Rho when he was president
- When you receive a jury notice you can serve and don’t try to get out of it
- We vote for judges in Ohio. Read their qualifications or ask your attorney. Don’t vote for a judge just because of his name. Even Chief Justice O’Conner of the Ohio Supreme Court says you have a better chance of being elected if you are an Irish woman, or named Brown. We have or have had judges of Tim Horton, Ann Taylor, and Janet Jackson.
- Ask yourself the question as I ask juries,” what offends you more, an innocent person wrongly convicted or a guilty person not convicted because of a technicality.”
- “Be a court watcher”. Go down and watch a case being tried. It is that greatest show in town.
When someone is down and out or treated unfairly don’t turn the other way. As that song from singer/songwriter Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan asks:
“How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see, the answer, my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind”
The answer, my friends, is in you. For “justice, justice, you shall pursue.”
Enjoy the Kiddish,. Margie and I have sponsored it in memory of our parents, Abraham and Edythe Gertner, and Rose Balthaser, may they rest in peace.