Remarks by Chief Justice
Charles R. Johnson
Boston Municipal Court Department
at Hampshire County Bar Association’s Law Day Celebration
in the Old Superior Court, Northampton
Massachusetts, May 1, 2006
you for being here today and for participating in this
effort to recognize the importance of the law in our
culture. I am honored to share in this important discussion
and to participate in this teaching of tolerance and
human interdependence. You never know where the divine
river is going to take you; you just have to be willing
to go with its flow, in faith, that the universal balance
requires your cooperation and that ultimately, no matter
the force of the current, you will be rewarded commensurate
with the quality of your service.
modest service this morning is to make a few remarks
consistent with the theme of the day: Tolerance: Lessons
from the Past.
is a word I have reflected on for sometime, and, quite
frankly, I don’t like that word when it comes to
human relationships. It seems to imply that all we have
to do is tolerate each other and we will have satisfied
whatever humanistic or even divine obligation we have
to each other.
do not believe this is true. Our responsibility for each
other should be much deeper than the shallow objective
of just leaving each other alone within the confines
of our individual choices and the dominant forces of
our repesective cultures. Though sometimes I would be
quite relieved if the one or maybe even the few invested
in the sport of my demise would leave me alone, experience
has convinced me that I cannot protect myself from the
ill intent of others, nor can you. Our best security
in this life is each other. Yes, I recognize the role
and power of God, but I firmly believe that God needs
help, and we are it. Call it what you will: your brother’s
keeper, watching my back, or simply doing the right thing.
We need each other to protect ourselves from each other.
cannot be partially tolerant. If you can’t abide
White people, soon you will not be able to abide Black
people, and then you start not to like Hispanic people,
and before long you discover there is something wrong
with Asian people; finally you discover that you just
don’t like people, not even those classified as
your own kind, because none of us quite measures up to
your personal standards of superiority. That puts you
in a very small club of isolation, loneliness and bitterness,
and you are reduced to the perpetual comfort--or better
yet, discomfort--of your own company. I can’t imagine
that being a good thing for you or for the rest of us.
person--each group has its imperfections and limitations.
Is there anyone here who knows a perfect White person?
I don’t know any perfect Black people either. What
makes life exciting and full of adventure is our opportunity
to share our respective gifts and talents with each other.
We are challenged to combine our best qualities to build
a community of good so that each of us may live a deeper,
richer, and more satisfying life. It is in our collective
strengths that we will find refuge from intolerance and
injustice. If the tyrant and his henchmen come for me,
your house should be my refuge—and you should expect
the same of me.
I consider some of the great human tragedies of recent
history: Emmett Till, Sacco and Vanzetti, Daley and Halligan,
the brutal displacement of the Native Americans, western
slavery, the Holocaust, racial discrimination, gender
inequality, etc., these kinds of things happened because
of individual acquiescence and community abdication of
its responsibility to protect the human and civil rights
of all its members. Tragedies do not just happen; we
permit them to happen. No tragedy has ever occurred because
of the power of one person; tragedies, injustices, and
their many permutations are the result of our collective
willingness to foster their creation and support their
continuation. If you want bad things to stop happening
to others, you must be willing to say to the perpetrators:
Stop! What you are doing is wrong, and I will not permit
people think they have to be like Martin Luther King
or John F. Kennedy, Condoleezza Rice or Margaret Marshall
to positively influence the lives of others. Not so:
the call to good need not be grandiose nor does it require
great gifts of intellect or resources. You may start
by being nice to the person sitting next to you; you
may start by tutoring a child of another race experiencing
difficulty in school; you may start by resisting the
mean-spirited gossip of the work place; you may start
by acknowledging that your opinion may not always be
right; you may start by recognizing that violence is
not entertainment; you may start by resisting the paralyzing
and dangerous notion that what you think, say, and do,
does not matter. Every day provides us with the opportunity
to support and protect each other; we need only to recognize
our capacity and our obligation to prevent hardship and
injustice to each other.
of us working within the legal process have a special
obligation to ensure that we do all we can to ensure
public trust and confidence in the fair and equal application
of the law.
law has no life of its own. Contrary to what some often
assert, the law is not a living, breathing organism.
The law is merely the way the dominant community speaks
at any given point in time. Even our Federal and State
Constitutions are but instruments of the community’s
highest ideals. Our quest to achieve those ideals is
the daily challenge of the judiciary. The theoretical
good of the law may be quite different from its reality.
law is like any instrument of power, it may be used to
do great good or it may be used to commit bloody murder.
Slavery was once legal. Denying women the right to vote
was once legal. Lynching was once legal. Public whippings
and burnings were once legal. Segregation was once legal,
and summary executions were legal. The integrity of the
law is dependant upon those entrusted with its creation
and maintenance. In other words, people make the difference.
Wise legislators; courageous judges; conscientious police
officers; compassionate probation officers; polite court
officers; patient clerks; and vigilant citizens all determine
the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the law. Each
of us must decide for ourselves how we will use the law
in our lives, and how we will permit it to be used in
the lives of others. Just think how many injustices would
have been avoided had the judge said “you can’t
do that”; or if the police had said “not
so fast”; or if the citizen had said “well,
what about this.”
law is presumed to be in the best interest of the people
because before laws are adopted they are subjected to
a rigorous process of open, fair, and representative
debate. But in America, we have a healthy skepticism
of the law that causes us to constantly and continually
analyze its present validity. There is and should never
be finality in the law. It is too much the function of
politics, power, and human selfishness. Some laws are
bad at birth but find longevity in the narrow but powerful
interest of their sponsors, and the cumbersome bureaucratic
apparatus of a large representative democracy. Whenever
any law is created or maintained as an instrument of
oppression, we should diligently seek its revocation.
am pleased to see so many young people in the audience
here today. I suspect you are not here voluntarily, but
I am glad you are here in any case. I sometimes wish
I were young again: I would be more disciplined in the
development of my mind; I would be more aware of the
speed of time. I would learn to speak many languages,
travel to many places, and dig deeper for any unique
abilities that might reside within me. Most of all, I
would celebrate each day of good health, and the opportunity
to make the world a better place for others and myself.
I sometimes find it difficult to engage in formal conversation
with children and young adults. I think it's because
I remember those years in my own life. My attention span
was not that great, and I thought the only important
thing in life was becoming an adult. Notwithstanding
the fact that you are as I once was, there are several
things I would like to share with you that I hope you
will take to heart.
of all, the world is a wonderful place and it is capable
of providing all things necessary to make your life exceptionally
happy and beautiful. There is only one catch: the world
does not surrender its benefits voluntarily; and if you
don’t know how to access to them, you may find
that the world can be rough and gruff, unyielding and
unforgiving. It is true that sometimes things are out
of our control, and, in spite of our best efforts, we
can’t get things to turn out our way. That only
means that in life there aren’t any guarantees.
However, you can still maximize your chances for a good
and productive life if you keep trying and if you always
try to achieve your personal best. Your best effort every
day is likely to yield the best results for you over
time. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Approach
life one day at a time. Succeed in the task before you
and tomorrow will take care of itself. Life is somewhat
like school: you can’t expect a good grade at the
end of the year if you don’t work hard today. Keep
your word. Finish what you start, and do what you have
promised. When you fall short, take responsibility for
your failures; blame yourself first, and you can give
what little blame may be left to some one else. You are
responsible for your own behaviors, decisions, and choices.
judging others if it is not your responsibility or business.
Life is very complex, and you will be surprised at how
your own behavior may one day fall to the judgment of
others. As you judge others so will you be judged.
respect others and require their respect of you: permitting
others to disrespect you is never a path to their respect.
Learn to yell, “Stop!” if someone is disrespecting
you. No one is entitled to build his or her life on top
of your dignity.
yourself for the truth before you seek it in others.
Have confidence in your ability to know right from wrong.
Your peers will have their standards of conduct, but
you should have your own. You should always know where
your peers end and where you begin. Be respectful and
considerate of one another. Unfortunately, too many people
seek to fill their personal emptiness with the unfounded
mischaracterization of others. Think before you speak
ill of other people. Your words are powerful and can
cause great pain to others.
to your parents; treat them with honor and respect. No
matter how “uncool” they may seem, they know
a lot more than you think, and in most cases, it is highly
unlikely that anyone will ever love you more than your
cultivate the courage to stand up for yourself, but most
importantly, when the time comes—and it will—have
the courage to stand up for each other.
you for listening.