When conscience is held in contempt of court


The trial for 22 British activists accused of hijacking a power station coal train last June began in Leeds this week. The defendants attempted to explain their motives—citing a UN statistic that linked carbon pollution from Drax power plant to 180 deaths per year—but were repeatedly warned by the judge that the jury was only interested in whether they had committed the offense.

The court’s dismissal of conscience is, of course, nothing novel. Activists continually face this dilemma whenever they are on trial. A shining example can be found in Daniel Berrigan’s play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which is based on the actual courtroom transcript of the 1968 trial he and eight others faced for burning draft files. The dialogue between the defendents and the judge shows just how dehumanizing the justice system can be for everyone involved, including the judge:

My question, your honor, concerns conscience.
Did you tell the jury they could not act
according to their conscience?

I did not mention conscience. I did not talk
about conscience. I do not mind saying that
this is the first time the question of
conscience has been raised in this court.

But was the jury told they could not use their
conscience in determining–

I certainly did not tell them they could
disregard their oath and let you off on sympathy
or because they thought you were sincere people.

Your honor, we are having great difficulty in
trying to adjust to the atmosphere of a court
from which the world is excluded, and the
events that brought us here are excluded
deliberately, by the charge to the jury.

They were not excluded. The question–

May I continue? Our moral passion was excluded.
It is as though we were subjects of an autopsy,
were being dismembered by people who wondered
whether or not we had a soul. We are sure that
we have a soul. It is our soul that brought us
here. It is our soul that got us in trouble.
It is our conception of man. But our moral
passion is banished from this court. It is as
though the legal process were an autopsy.

Well, I cannot match your poetic language.

The audience breaks into APPLAUSE.

(to all)
Any further demonstration and the court will be
cleared. And I mean that. The whole crowd.
(to Daniel Berrigan)
Father Berrigan, you made your points on the
stand, very persuasively. I admire you as a
poet. But I think you simply do not understand
the function of a court.

I am sure that is true.

You admitted that you went to Catonsville with
a purpose which requires your conviction. You
wrote your purpose down in advance. Your
counsel stood and boasted of it. Now I happen
to have a job in which I am bound by an oath of
office. If you had done this thing in many
countries of the world, you would not be
standing here. You would have been in your
coffins long ago. Now, nobody is going to draw
and quarter you. You may be convicted by the
jury and if you are, I certainly propose to
give you every opportunity to say what you want.

Your honor, you spoke very movingly of your
understanding of what it is to be a judge. I
wish to ask whether or not reverence for the
law does not also require a judge to interpret
and adjust the law to the needs of the people
here and now. I believe that no tradition can
remain a mere dead inheritance. It is a living
inheritance which must continue to offer to the
living. So, it may be possible, even though
the law excludes certain important questions of
conscience, to include them nonetheless and,
thereby, to bring the tradition to life again
for the sake of the people.

Well, I think there are two answers to that.
You speak to me as a man and as a judge. As a
man, I would be a very funny sort if I were not
moved by your sincerity on the stand, and by
your views. I agree with you completely, as a
person. We can never accomplish what we would
like to accomplish, or give a better life to
people, if we are going to keep on spending so
much money for war. But a variety of
circumstances makes it most difficult to have
your point of view presented. It is very
unfortunate but the issue of the war cannot be
presented as sharply as you would like. The
basic principle of our law is that we do things
in an orderly fashion. People cannot take the
law into their own hands.

Although the Catonsville Nine were found guilty, defendents in similar trials that came several years later, such as the Camden 28, were found innocent. Perhaps the passing of time and the mounting opposition to Vietnam had an effect on the morals of the justice system. And perhaps the same can happen for climate activists with poplar opinion and even governments seeking to prevent global warming. There’s only one way to find out: remain patient and persistent.