Americans have the fortitude to make the legal system work

Jim Redwine

American soldiers stationed in West Germany after World War II picked up the German saying “Macht nichts” and anglicized it to "Mox Nix." Either way it means, it doesn’t matter -- kind of shorthand for don’t sweat the small stuff.

If you are a regular reader of Gavel Gamut, you might recall a recent column in which the general topic involved the American legal system’s treatment of high-profile cases such as the George Floyd/Derek Chauvin matter. Judge Peter Cahill, in that Minnesota jury trial, was faced with several issues related to publicity about the case. The judge was asked to change the venue of the jury trial out of Hennepin County; he refused. The judge was asked to sequester the jury; he refused. And he was asked to recuse himself as judge; he refused.

The basis for each of these requests from defendant Chauvin was imputed bias because the judge, jury, victim, defendant and witnesses were from Hennepin County and, there might be prejudice due to personal experiences with the local area and populace, or from the pervasive local media coverage. The defense asserted the judge and jury would perforce decide the case not based on the evidence but without regard to the proven facts, or worse in spite of them.

While I have no position as to the validity of such allegations in the Chauvin case, in general it strikes me that such fears evince disdain for the character of judges and jurors. Do those who aver a trier of fact would find someone guilty or innocent based on personal bias in the face of admitted evidence proving the opposite really think so little of their fellow citizens? Haven’t we all had to make many difficult choices that often go counter to what we would prefer? Then why would we assume others are made of lesser stuff than we? If we were the judge or a juror, wouldn’t we swallow hard and decide the case as required by the law and the evidence in spite of what we might wish the facts to be? So why not afford our fellow citizens that same consideration?

Does that mean no case should ever be venued or no judge should ever recuse? Absolutely not, and I was neither the judge nor a juror in the Derek Chauvin case, so I take no position on whether Judge Cahill erred or whether the jury based its verdicts on improper factors. Those issues are now going to be reviewed by the Minnesota appellate courts which, will have the duty and ability to ascertain whether the trial was fairly conducted by the judge and proper verdicts returned by the jury.

Most judges and most jurors most of the time have the ability and character to recognize when their personal feelings and news accounts must be set aside if a just verdict is to be reached. In those circumstances where human frailty overcomes treating others in court the way we would expect and like to be treated, we do have appellate procedures as a safeguard. Most cases are decided in circumstances where extraneous matters could be influential on the outcome. However, America’s legal system and the citizens who are responsible for operating it have the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff and they have the character to know when to say Mox Nix.