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Philadelphia: Jury Nullification and Natural Rights

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In the film “Philadelphia,” Andrew Beckett was actively recruited by the Wyant and Wheeler law firm, one of the most prestigious law firms in Philadelphia. While employed for Wyant and Wheeler, Mr. Beckett contracts HIV and conceals his illness from his employers. Beckett showed great promise and was highly placed in the firm and was even placed at the head of a landmark copyright case whose outcome would have a major impact on the firm’s reputation. During the preparation for this important case, the formal complaint is lost with only minutes before the statute of limitations expires but is found “misplaced” in central filing. The firm used this as a reason to fire Mr. Beckett for incompetence. However, Mr. Beckett claims that his employer discovered that he had HIV, based on the appearance of Karposi’s Sarcoma lesions on his face. Based on this, Mr. Beckett sues the law firm in federal court for discrimination based on a handicap that did not prevent Mr. Beckett from performing the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation, which if true, would violate Title 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Mr. Beckett and his lawyer, Mr. Miller, used the Supreme Court case, School Board of Nassau County V. Arline (1987) as precedent that contagious diseases may be considered a handicap; however, employers may consider the contagious effects on others in determining the qualification of a person to perform essential functions by consulting the medical judgments of public health officials. The issue of this case is whether, in fact, Wyant and Wheeler law firm fired Andrew Beckett for incompetence or if they fired him due to their knowledge or belief that he had HIV. If the latter is found to be true, Wyant and Wheeler would need to prove that the judgments of public health officials show that Mr. Beckett is no longer qualified to perform essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations.

There are two ways that I could approach this case. The more conventional approach of determining whether existing statutes and laws were adhered to would lead me to agree with the jury in the film Philadelphia, so long as the events took place after the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The defendants make no claim that Mr. Beckett was no longer qualified to perform the essential functions of his job at the time he was fired and the evidence suggests that their claims of incompetence are either grossly exaggerated or simply false. The events leading up to the firing shows that the firm had the highest confidence in Mr. Beckett and therefore must have had ulterior motives for his dismissal. The reason I specify the events of the case needed to place after to 1990 is because the ADA was not in existence prior to 1990 and its predecessor the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, used in the School Board of Nassau County V. Arline (1987) case, only applied to programs that received federal assistance and not to private companies. So again, if Mr. Beckett was fired after the passage of ADA and I strictly followed the letter of the law, then I would rule in favor of Mr. Beckett in agreement with the jurors in the film.

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Filed under Law
Nov 5, 2011

Retributive Punishment: Proportionality and Justice

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The way we punish criminals and restore justice is very important to our overall crime prevention strategy. It is important to establish a punitive system that will exact the right amount of punishment while also bringing about justice and restitution to the victim of the crime. A retributive punishment system, where the maximum punishment is proportional to the crime and the victim decides the final sentence for the aggressor would bring the goal of criminal punishment back to its rightful focus… justice for the victims of crime.

The “primacy of restitution to the victim” is an “ancient principle of law”, but “as the State monopolized the institution of punishment, so the rights of the injured were slowly separated from penal law.” (1)(2) This has led to the focus of “punishment” shifting from justice for the victims to the utilitarian purpose of deterrence or the “humanitarian” goal of “rehabilitation.” Both of these alternatives to justice are philosophically flawed if carried to their logical conclusions. The utilitarian goal of deterrence would justify “cruel and unusual” punishments, since it would be the most effective at deterring future criminals, as well as severely harsh punishments for minor crimes since justice or proportionality is not the goal. The humanitarian goal of rehabilitation, on the other hand, condemns the criminal to an “indeterminate” sentence– “to be determined at the Psychologist’s pleasure”– regardless of the crime and all at the expense of the victim, who pays taxes to support these rehabilitation efforts, with no restitution repaid to the victim or justice achieved on their behalf. Also, if rehabilitation is the sole goal of criminal punishment than a petty thief could theoretically be held much longer than a murderer if the thief is less willing to reform or not as capable of feigning rehabilitation compared to the murderer.

The way to truly pursue justice against the aggressor and on behalf of the victim would be to allow the victim to sentence the aggressor, up to a maximum punishment, once they have been found guilty. The punishment should be both proportionally retributive towards the criminal as well as include restitution for the victim, “two teeth for a tooth” concept of punishment. This is demonstrated most easily in the example of theft used by Murray Rothbard in his essay Punishment and Proportionality. Suppose a thief is found guilty of stealing $15,000 from Bob. We would hold that he must pay back the $15,000 he stole (restitution), but that is not punishment but simply restitution for the thief is no worse off than he was prior to the theft, so he should be forced to pay an additional $15,000 (plus police and court costs) to Bob so that he is deprived of the same liberty that he deprived Bob of (retribution). This is the concept that sets the proportional maximum that a victim may sentence a guilty criminal. However, the victim, since justice is theirs, should also be able to forgive the criminal in entirety or exercise partial forgiveness for whatever reason, philosophy, sympathy, monetary compensation, etc.

This legitimate sense of justice and retributive system of punishment will distribute punishment appropriately according to the level of harm done to the victims of the crime and the “two teeth for a tooth” concept upheld up to the desire of the victim should also act as a deterrent to criminals, even though that is not the primary goal.

(1) Rothbard, Murray. The Ethics of Liberty. New Jersy: New York University, 1998. (“Punishment and Proportionality“)

(2) William, Tallack. Reparation to the Injured and the Rights of the Victims of Crime to Compensation. London, 1900.

Filed under Crime, Law, Philosophy
Mar 10, 2010