Justice Is Not Easy

This fall the nine justices of the "traveling" Washington Supreme Court visited Puget Sound and heard legal cases onstage, before the public. Several of the justices also sat in on classes, including this one.

The 17 students, variously clad in busted-knee jeans, leggings, hiking boots, puffer jackets, and a lone plaid flannel shirt, were pretty quiet for the first 25 minutes as two Washington Supreme Court justices talked about their work to the class Thinking Ethically: What Is Justice? Then it was question time. A hand popped up.

Justice Mary Yu

“I want to go into law,” said Emily Nygard ’19. “And I find I come to class and talk about justice issues, and then I’m talking about them for the rest of the day, because I’m, like, so riled up.” Emily wanted to know how the justices leave it all behind when they go home.

Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson and Justice Mary Yu have spent a combined total of 45 years on court benches and have heard all too many tough cases. Both admitted it was not easy. Yu said that if she was having issues with a case, she would go to a colleague and “rant and rave a little.” But, she added, “The cases are so important, and I care so much about them, that I am OK taking them home with me.”

From the circle of students, another hand went up. Alagna Ashurst ’19, frowning and chewing on her pen, posed three tough ones: What is justice to you? What does a just society look like? And is justice being done by incarcerating people?

Johnson jumped in. “I don’t think we can claim we live in a just society when there are people who are needy and wanting walking down the streets,” he said. It was also distressing, and unacceptable, when society dispensed justice on the basis of race or wealth. Despite decades of efforts to address this injustice, Johnson said that again and again “we see another wall we have to climb over.”

Justices Charles Johnson and Mary Yu discuss the ethics of justice with students.

Yu then spoke up about incarceration. Prison is an unreliable deterrent, she said, and we are failing at rehabilitation. But, she said, “we have an obligation to protect innocent individuals as well.” Yu added that sometimes the system is focused more on punishment than on deterrence or protection. “It is not the best system, but it is the one we have,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

The students sat quietly, focused and intent. Johnson offered a little relief. There is a way to improve things, he said—and that is education. “It’s one thing we’ve found that works best in breaking the recidivism,” he said, adding that the more money spent on education, the more kids kept in high school, the more who continued their studies, “the better their chances at life.”

A few moments later the class came to a noisy end, bags zipping, chairs shifting, and applause for the two guests. The students straggled out, and the two justices went on their way to face yet more pointed questions, this time as part of a panel on the sticky issue of free speech and activism.


Shirley Skeel
Published Dec. 12, 2017
Photos by Shirley Skeel