President's Message: Keep striving for fragile goal of equal justice
Monday, February 25, 2019
By Eric Nord
The numbers 3-7-77 are on the patch that Montana Highway Patrol troopers wear on their uniforms. While the exact meaning of the numbers is unclear, it is certainly related to the early days of justice in Montana when vigilantes were, for many, the only system of law and order. One of the most widely accepted theories of the number is that it represents the dimensions of a grave (three feet wide by seven feet deep by 77 inches long).1
While this period of Montana “justice” may be romanticized by some, it certainly had its drawbacks. Whether you were the suspect of a crime unjustly accused by the mob who wanted to lynch you, or the victim of a crime perpetrated by a well-connected “popular” criminal, vigilante justice had its problems. The only option to vigilante justice in many places was the so-called miners’ courts where justice could be very democratic because, in certain instances, virtually everyone in the camp got to vote on the guilt or innocence of the suspect (and maybe even multiple times). As one observer at the time put it:
Another powerful incentive to wrong-doing is the absolute nullity of the civil law in such cases. No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community ‘Not Guilty’ is almost certain to be the verdict, despite the efforts of the judge and prosecutor.2
We like to think that we are a long way from those arcane days of justice, and that our current system needs no refinement. For those of limited means seeking access to justice, however, a differing opinion could be offered. When one does not have the means to an attorney, or the ability to understand the vagaries of the system, justice is an unrealized concept. “We the People” become just empty words and are understood to mean “You the Powerful.”
Equal justice is a fragile concept, as anyone who has tried to balance a scale knows. Any minor change in weight on one side or other creates a dangerous imbalance. Put too much weight on one side and you get totalitarianism. Put too much weight on the other side and you get anarchy or mob rule. Between these two extremes our judicial system seeks to impart “equal justice” with the understanding that the scales weigh the strength of every case’s support and opposition.
Montana lawyers and judges strive in various ways to promote equal justice in our state. On a day-to-day basis, lawyers represent opposing parties who present their differing viewpoints and let the judge or jury decide who is right. Many attorneys offer their services pro bono to assist the indigent in letting their voices be heard. Judges patiently explain to pro se litigants the vagaries of the system and how to present their cases.
Seeking to create a broader impact, the Montana Justice Foundation provides grants and other assistance to programs that promote equal justice in our society. With the generous donations of Montana lawyers like you, the Montana Justice Foundation awarded $649,100 this year to 20 outstanding nonprofit organizations committed to helping Montanans address their legal needs, including $563,000 to Montana Legal Services Association – MJF’s largest grant cycle in nearly a decade. It also provides a Loan Repayment Assistance Program for law school graduates dedicated to providing legal aid to low-income individuals and families in Montana.
The Bar supports and commends all who work for equal justice in our society. As we go about our daily lives, let us keep our hearts and minds open to additional ways that we can serve this primary goal of our profession.
For more history see https://www.montanatrooper.com/3-7-77/ or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3-7-77
Vigilantes of Montana, Thomas Dimsdale, 1865 quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montana_Vigilantes