Vital Signs

Who Are You? The Law of Status

What do veterans, drug users, children, and suspected terrorists have in common?  They all have specialized courts to deal with them and their legal issues.  Illinois has become the latest state to set up a special “veterans’ court” to handle veterans charged with nonviolent crimes.  (New York has had a similar program in place since early last year.)  The court will not only adjudicate offenses but connect veterans to a range of services and programs that are meant to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.  The judge organizing this court has even selected veterans to serve as prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The first family courts date from the 1960’s and Great Society-like initiatives meant to address “root causes” of dysfunctional behavior.  Their origins, however, stretch back a century or more to the orphans’ courts and reform houses established by the community organizers of the Gilded Age.  Rather than simply punish, their advocates thought, courts should rehabilitate those offenders who were thought to be reformable.

The existence of such specialized courts raises some interesting questions for American law.  Equality before the law is supposed to be a protection against the assertion of arbitrary power.  At its most banal, there is the enforced frustration of waiting around in a courthouse all day while being considered for jury duty. ...

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