Legal justice - western style

Thomas L. Petty, M.D.

Professor of Medicine, 
University of Colorado

Chairman, National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP)


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Legal Justice - Western Style

September 1995
PEP Pioneers
Second Wind
Torrance, California

     Dear Friends,

     American patriot, William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania, once said, justice is the insurance we have on our lives and property. Obedience is the premium which we pay for it. Much earlier, Cicero uttered the truism, A Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues. But how do these profound statements relate to the highly publicized and seemingly endless legal battles and investigations that are going on coast to coast, involving both celebrities and public officials in high places in our land? Could it be true, as lawyer Clarence Darrow said, "There is no such thing as justice -- in or out of court".

     All of this leads me to comment upon Western justice as it was practiced in the traditional west, i.e., the Rocky Mountain region, was explored and A civilized. Western justice focused on the clear establishment of fact. If someone saw a crime, it happened. If no one saw an event such as stealing a horse or a cow, it didn't happen. In those days, there were no cameras, microphones, telephones, wire taps, or DNA evidence. If a person shot another person, it was either murder or self defense. A true duel lead to no charges. The witnesses became the jury. If someone was seen steeling a horse or a cow, they gave the thief a fair trial and a hanging followed immediately. Delays were non-existent, the decision was final, and people went on about their business.

     Things are vastly different in the era in which we now live. Life is far more complex. Different people can look at exactly the same evidence and draw different conclusions. The pursuit of the truth seems illusive. I must confess that I agree with several anonymous aphorisms, which may or may not amuse you.

  • No. 1 Justice wears different faces for different people.
  • No. 2 Everyone sees his own cause as just.
  • No. 3 Justice often satisfies neither side.
  • No. 4 Justice always needs a friend at court.

     Of course, we will never return to the Western form of justice, but in its era it had many advantages.

     Iíll be in touch next month.

     Sincerely yours,

     Thomas Petty, MD

Last update:
11 April 2002