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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, December 4, 2023


"That's not fair!" If you have children, you probably hear that a lot. Children have an innate sense of fairness and are quick to spot injustices, real and imagined.
Part of growing up, unfortunately, is understanding that life often is not fair. But all of us retain that ideal of fairness, the desire that in any dispute we have the chance to tell our side of the story, to someone who is impartial, and will make the decisions based on the facts.
That simple premise protecting fundamental fairness is one of the cornerstones of our legal system. This year, on May 1, Law Day, as we celebrate St. Thomas Carnival, let us also celebrate our freedoms protected by law, the right to express our opinion, select our leaders, worship where we choose, and pursue our livelihood. We should be reflect on how the law also protects our freedom from injustice.
Thanks to the rights embedded in the United States Constitution and enforced every day by our courts, all of us are protected, as individuals, even from the might power of the government.
These rights were vital to the Founders of our nation because they knew all too well the overwhelming power of an unjust government. Their long struggles with the English crown taught them what can happen when a powerful enemy doesn't play by the rules. The Declaration of Independence censured the King for "obstructing the Administration of Justice," … "making Judges dependent on his Will alone," and denying "the benefits of Trial by Jury."
In establishing our government, the Founders made sure that Americans would always have fundamental legal protections. They gave us a defense against government overreaching unmatched at that time, and all too rare in our world even today.
Our Constitution guarantees that Americans will never be subjected to Kafkaesque nightmares of being accused of nameless crimes, with no hope of being heard. We can never be imprisoned or unspecified charges, be denied legal help, be denied the right to examine witnesses, be tried secretly…and the list goes on.
Thanks to our Constitution, we have many rights in any dispute with the government over our property. Because the government must follow due process of law, it can't just take our home if it needs the land for a new school or a road. There has to be an opportunity for the owner to be heard and a process for determining what is just compensation for the property.
That same principle applies to disputes with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, or with Social Security or Medicare. The exact procedures may differ, but the principle is that all of us have the right to tell our side of the story, before an impartial decision-maker, and have the right to appeal if we are not satisfied with the decision.
Do the procedures guarantee that we will get what we want? Of course not. Even when you have had the opportunity to your side of the story, you still might get a result you're not totally satisfied with. And even when things eventually work out, sometimes the pace is frustratingly slow.
But we do have rights, we do have procedures to make them real, and we do have a system of courts, independent of political pressures, able to enforce these rights.
These due process rights of all Americans set forth an ideal of fairness, between government and citizen, that's the envy of the world. That's why our Constitution is so often the model that emerging democracies adopt in the march of freedom around the world.
In celebrating our great tradition of liberty under law, we can't lose sight of the rights and procedures that enable us to be free. It is they that make the great words, "Equal Justice Under Law," more than a lofty slogan carved in stone, but an answer to the age-old cry, "That's not fair!"
Editors' note: Tom Bolt is a local St. Thomas attorney and the American Bar Association Delegate for the Virgin Islands Bar Association.

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