On Nov. 1, the president claimed that the criminal justice system in the United States is “a joke” and “a laughingstock” for the way suspects are prosecuted.
He suggested the New York terror suspect could be sent to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay for quick and strong justice. He is wrong on all counts.
It is not clear who considers our criminal justice system to be a laughingstock. Perhaps Vladimir Putin thinks it is stupid to provide criminal defendants a fair trial. Russian prosecutors know they are required to produce the result Putin wants, if they know what’s good for them. The Russian system does not produce justice.
The U.S. justice system, on the other hand, is the envy of the civilized world. It respects the rights of those charged with crimes, while producing just results. It is not a perfect system, but one of the best and most respected on Earth. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern European countries that had been under the Soviet yoke sought assistance from American lawyers and judges to implement justice systems like ours.
One reason the United States became an economic powerhouse is because we have a court system that is widely recognized as being honest and even-handed. Americans and foreigners alike know they will receive fair treatment in the system, which encourages them to make investments in our economy without fear of confiscation or false criminal charges.
As far as the military commissions at Guantanamo being able to produce quick and strong justice, don’t hold your breath. The commissions are largely dysfunctional, having produced only eight convictions in 15 years. Three of those convictions were overturned.
General Charles Krulak, a retired Marine Corps commandant, said the president “should never consider” sending the New York suspect to Guantanamo. Krulak observed that “Federal courts have a track record of fairly and expeditiously dealing with terrorism suspects, having handled more than 600 cases since 9/11. The criminal justice system has enabled our government to gather timely, actionable intelligence to drive our counterintelligence efforts.”
For sake of comparison, the person who set off bombs in the Chelsea area in New York last year was just convicted of terrorism charges in federal court in October. On the other hand, the person who masterminded the bombing of the USS Cole 17 years ago has been awaiting trial for 10 years by a military commission in Guantanamo. Rather than dispensing justice to the terrorist, the military judge has sentenced the brigadier general in charge of the Gitmo defense teams to 21 days of confinement. That comes close to the laughingstock category.
It is fair game for members of the executive and legislative branches of our government to criticize individual court decisions or suggest ways to improve the justice system. However, it is wrong to indict the entire system by falsely claiming it to be a joke or laughingstock. That demeans a system that people around the world have long respected and tried to emulate.
If the leader of the free world calls his own court system a joke, what are people in other nations to think? Doesn’t it demean our nation as a whole? I’m in agreement with the observation made by Neil Gorsuch, after he was nominated to the Supreme Court but before his confirmation, that such criticism of courts and judges is “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and former Supreme Court chief justice.