Monday, September 17, 2018

Equal Justice: The Legend of Herkenbald

Law, we are told even in fifth grade, is something that applies to all without respect to wealth or status.  And then a few years later the same notion gets drilled into our mushy skulls during civics class as high school freshmen.  It's a noble ideal, and we like to think that the world follows America's example as a model of how under the rule of law, there are none deemed greater than others.  Rich or poor, celebrity or obscure, politically affluent or peanut gallery... it doesn't matter.  Here we are all equally accounted and equally accountable.

And it is all a damnable fantasy and we all know it.  Even if we don't talk about it.

I suppose the current situation with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is in my mind tonight.  As of this writing some former classmate during the early Eighties is alleging that Kavanaugh did something, or other, whatever.  She's due to testify before the Senate next week.  It's already grounds enough, however dubious, to have a number of elected officials and many commentators in the media demanding that Kavanaugh withdraw himself as a nominee.

Huh.  Funny.  I remember many of these same people insisting in 1998 that President Bill Clinton's sexcapades were inconsequential.  That his "character didn't matter".  That it was all "sex lies" whatever that is supposed to be.  If it didn't affect his performance as President of the United States then it shouldn't be on the radar.

These same people went down to the mat tooth and claw to fight for Bill Clinton.  Now they demand that Brett Kavanaugh be stricken from consideration for the Supreme Court.  All on the word of an individual whose integrity has been questioned by her peers and students, and is now found to be an anti-Trump activist at least at some point recently.

Maybe it's just me, but a semen-stained dress is a lot more incriminating than high school gossip from thirty-five years ago.  That a heap of Kavanaugh's former fellow adolescents are now vouching has been made out of whole cloth circa September 2018.

Don't even get me started on the obscene double-standard in regard to the allegations of foreign interfence on Trump's behalf in the last election and the uranium sale that we know happened with the blessing of Hillary Clinton.  One is fast becoming an unsubstantiated scandal that has lost all meaning for most Americans.  The other supplied nuclear material to those who would do harm to this country.

But, none of those particulars are really germane to this post.  I'm discussing the greater tragedy across our system of justice.  Namely, that justice is not impartial.  It plays favorites.  It has become a commodity for sale to those with pull.  And it's not supposed to be this way.

Which brings us to the legend of Herkenbald.

It was something introduced to me when I was in Belgium many years ago.  And ever since I've thought that it's a tale well worth telling to students here.  It should especially be shared in law schools, and in police academies, and with anyone who takes it upon himself or herself to become involved in the judicial process at any level.  It is, in my mind, the perfect parable of incorruptible justice.

So, what is the legend?

Herkenbald is said to have lived around 1020.  That is when he was a judge serving the people of Brussels, anyway.  And he was renowned far and wide for the wisdom of his decisions.  He was also famous... or infamous... for how serious he took his duties.  Everyone, no matter their station, was beneath the same shadow of immutable law.

And then came the day when Herkenbald, after many years of faithful service to his people, was very old and taken with grave illness.  He was moved to a bed in the hospital, to wait for the end.  And yet, he insisted that he be allowed to carry out the task appointed him long before.

Toward the end, Herkenbald heard a commotion outside of his room.  With hesitance, the great magistrate was told that his own nephew had taken a maiden against her will and committed rape.  Herkenbald commanded his subordinates to bring his nephew to his bedside.

However, the subordinates disobeyed, and took measures to hide the nephew.  And for whatever dumb reason, five days later the nephew came to the hospital on his own and entered Herkenbald's room.

Herkenbald was friendly and kind to his nephew.  He was very glad to see the young man, here at the end of his own days.  He bid his nephew to come and sit beside him.

And that's when Herkenbald grabbed the youth, held him with all his remaining strength as he pulled out a concealed dagger, and slit his own nephew's throat wide open.

His nephew's body collapsed to the floor.  The act discovered even as Herkenbald's breathing grew shallow, the bishop was summoned to hear his confession and to deliver last rites.  But Herkenbald refused to confess to the murder of his nephew.  It was not murder at all, the judge told the bishop.  It was the administration of justice.  His nephew had raped a woman and thus forfeited his life.  The law was without question in the matter.  A crime had been committed and punishment must be meted out.  And that is what Herkenbald had done.

Outraged, the bishop refused the final sacraments to Herkenbald.  The legend says that just as the bishop was storming out of the room, Herkenbald called out to him.  Then Herkenbald blew the high clergyman a holy raspberry: upon his tongue was the sacramental Host.  He had been given communion by the highest of all judges.  And then, his tasks fulfilled and a proverbial "up yours!" to the Bishop of Brussels, Herkenbald died.

Now if that's not a hardcore myth to convey to apprentice practitioners of the law and to veteran judges and constables alike, then by all rights it should be.  The legend of Herkenbald is the perfect morality tale about the law.  It is an admonition to judges and to politicians and to all who would hold sacred the rule of law in a society.  It is a reminder that though man and his schemes are inescapably fallen, there is an incorruptibility that must be striven toward without favor.

That photo is a depiction of Herkenbald slaying his nephew.  The statue itself decorates one of the churches in Brussels.

Maybe there needs to be a sculpture of Herkenbald in the United States Capitol Building.  Perhaps in the Rotunda, where every member of the House and Senate might see it.  And in the United States Supreme Court Building.  And in every courthouse in America.  And in law school textbooks.

After all, Lady Justice carries a blade.  Herkenbald actually used his.

2 comments:

Juan-Miguel Vasquez said...

Lying to prosecutors about what particular consensual sex acts one may or may not have had (questions which Kavanaugh might have penned himself) and attempted rape are qualitatively different. You are not and never have been non partisan. You're a right wing hack and you know it.

Chris Knight said...

Dear Juan,

A few things...

1. The post is not about Kavanaugh. It is about something much more beyond the scope of a single Supreme Court nomination. I even said as much in this article.

2. I've never been employed by any "right wing" interest and wouldn't care to be. Neither have I ever been an apologist for any party or ideology. I have been branded a "liberal" and a "socialist" as many times if not more so than I have been called "conservative".

3. If I recall correctly, you were on Hillary Clinton's slate of electors had she won North Carolina in the 2016 presidential election.

The defense rests.