We are used to thinking of the justice system as being finely balanced between the different parties, but that is not the case. In some cases, the balance can weigh differently, and efforts to redress what are apparent imbalances can create more notable imbalances in the opposite direction. Be that as it may, there is often at least a desire to balance the two parties, although there are certain asymmetries built within the system itself, try as we might to make the two somewhat even in their operation.
Let us note that there are several key parties in an adversarial justice system. We have a judge, whose job it is to engage in sentencing, if the defendant(s) is/are found to be guilty, and to ensure a level playing field during the course of the trial by dealing with objections and motions and providing fair jury instructions and so on. We have a jury, made up of twelve people (plus alternates) whose job it is to hear the testimony and arguments and to decide whether or not the defendant(s) were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not. We have a prosecutor whose purpose is to seek the truth and seek justice for the victim(s) of a given crime but who can all too easily be twisted into seeking mere victory, whether it is just or not. We then have a defense attorney, whose job it is to defend his or her client as vigorously and ably as possible, as well as the defendant, who stands on trial at the risk of his or her life or freedom.
Why is this asymmetrical? The key asymmetries come about between the prosecutor and the defense attorney and defendant. The prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, an aim that is inseparable from seeking truth, but it is sometimes easy, especially when justice is overly politicized, for such a person to seek conviction instead. On the other hand, as has been noted above, the defense attorney’s job is to get the defendant to go free by providing enough testimony from cross-examination or direct witnesses or exhibits to lead to reasonable doubt or even, as sometimes happens, the strong conviction of innocence. Similarly, the stakes are rather asymmetrical. A prosecuting attorney or defense attorney may lose a fair amount of business or their jobs if things go wrong, but a defendant’s life and freedom are at stake, and no one in the courtroom has higher stakes than the person standing at the bar.
It is vitally important for us to know who is standing at the bar in given situations. When we use trial language metaphorically, we like to think of ourselves as being the judge or jury, deciding various factors and fancying ourselves to be just and fair-minded people when it comes to determining and weighing and balancing what is true. Yet when it comes to our relationship with God and the Bible and truth, we are not the judges of what is true, but rather we are held accountable and judged by a true standard. As much as we might fancy ourselves as being the ones in charge, we all too often end up being the ones at the bar, or trying to do the adversary’s job by bringing up other people to the bar so that we may rejoice in their stress and discomfort. And is that a really worthwhile task?