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.

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