Both procedural and substantive justice thou shall pursue

Both procedural and substantive justice thou shall pursue

Rabbi David Novitsky
Rabbi David Novitsky

In this week’s Torah portion, Jethro observes his son-in-law Moses judging the people while they stand and wait morning until evening. Both Moses and the litigants are worn out because of a legal system that contains only one member of the judiciary to adjudicate all controversies.

Then Jethro, former priest of Midian and a recent convert to Judaism, instructs Moses on the establishment of a legal system staffed by many judges presiding over a hierarchy of people’s courts, appellate courts and finally a supreme court that ultimately is presided over by Moses and possesses jurisdiction on only the most complex legal matters. Jethro advises Moses on the appointment, selection and criteria for judges who sit on the bench of this hierarchy of legal tribunals.

To qualify as a judge one must possess knowledge of the law, experience in life events, professional competence and exhibit independence. A judge must not be swayed by fear of any litigant when rendering a decision, even if that may entail personal or economic harm. Such a jurist must be G-d fearing, respectful of individuals and be a person of financial means who would insulate the court from financial pressure. A judge must decide a matter based solely on the facts and ignore the identity of the litigants.

Both small and great issues, celebrity personalities and the financial amounts involved must not affect the outcome of any decision. Jethro introduces a system of both civil and criminal procedure to accompany the richest and most substantive Jewish legal system of civil, criminal and religious law found throughout history.

If there is no procedure for proper adjudication, any legal system will fail. In Philadelphia County, sometimes a litigant may have to wait several years for a case to be heard. Justice delayed because of an improper implementation of the law is justice denied; an arbitrator, calendar judge or magistrate in Washington County is just as essential and important as Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The first part of the Torah portion that discusses legal procedure is equally as important as the second part, which contains the Ten Commandments and the transmission of the written and oral law. Even though Jethro is a gentile priest, he contributes to Judaism its most important component — access to the law.

The Bible instructs us later on in the Book of Deuteronomy with the words, “Justice, justice thou shall pursue.” Many scholars are puzzled by this verse, because the Bible mentions the word justice a second and unnecessary time. My personal understanding of this verse, and after personally representing more than a thousand legal clients, is that the first word “justice” refers to the substance of law. The second word “justice” refers to the system of civil and criminal procedure that allows for the implementation of the law initiated by Jethro. One form of justice without the other is meaningless.

Rabbi David Novitsky is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Washington. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.