Guest Op-Ed: What is Justice?



On an early October afternoon in 1995, Americans sat glued to our televisions. We anxiously awaited the verdict of the first trial to capture our collective attention since the advent of cable news. Soon we learned that twelve jurors in Los Angeles acquitted O.J. Simpson of two counts of murder. For 26 years, we have been constantly reminded of that trial. It was a true cultural defining point for our nation and changed how we learned, thought and reacted to the judicial system.

There were many parallels in the recent case of Derek Chauvin. Once again, cable news dedicated much of its coverage to a singular trial. This time, however, it was in the public spotlight not because of a celebrity factor, but because of the impact of and outrage centered around George Floyd’s death by Chauvin’s hands this past spring.

Volumes of pages have been dedicated to the causes and effects of Floyd’s death. It happened at a time when we, as a society, were ready to have deeper discussions that went beyond one person. Much like the case of Ernesto Miranda in 1965, I suspect the case will have long-lasting effects and reforms within our criminal justice system. But, while I have opinions regarding the case, there is nothing I can write that has not already been discussed ad nauseam.

Rather, I’d like to address justice. Immediately after Chauvin’s multiple guilty verdicts were announced, pundits and commentators began heralding the justice of the result. Friends of mine of social media were posting comments of “Justice is served!” and the like. But, I question, was justice really achieved?

Justice is a word that we throw around loosely, without ever stopping to think what it really means. From the exalted, where we call those who sit on the highest courts in the land Justices, to the plebeian, as I recently watched the director’s cut of the Justice League movie. (There’s four hours of my life I will never get back!) As children we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with “and justice for all.” Heck, for over twenty years I even had an email account at, the now dormant,

The concept of what justice truly is has been debated by philosophers for centuries. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all attempted to define the notion, each having holes in their arguments. It is impossible to define because it means something different to everyone. Explaining justice is like trying to tell a deaf person what sound is like. How can you begin to do it when, at the core, everyone perceives it differently? When I examine my thoughts on justice, I recognize they are individual in nature, but I offer them to you.

To begin with, I do not believe justice comes from law. Yes, the rule of law is a great hallmark of modern government. And yes, often justice is more attainable because of that. But laws do not ensure justice. After all, there can be and often are laws that proclaim legality, yet not morality. For well over a century, women could not vote in the United States. Native Americans were forcibly relocated to some of our worst lands. People of color suffered one atrocity after another as laws were crafted to limit their progression in society. Each of those were lawful, and of course products of their own times, but no one can rightfully argue that they were just.

Some will argue that justice is what prevents the majority from trampling on the rights of the minority, a firewall of societal protection. While admirable, I do not believe that is justice either. As often cited, justice should be blind. When a person seeks it, the false trappings of race, gender, religion, economic status, etc. should not influence the pursuit. Justice should prevail, regardless of status or position, or the lack thereof.

And, what I am most confident of is, justice does not equate to punishment or revenge. Truthfully, I believe there are times for both. Sometimes they are with the greatest of intentions, sometimes not. But neither can accomplish what I see as justice.

The theoretical concept of justice, in my opinion, is when all have equal opportunity to use the talents with which they have been bestowed. A noble goal, which is undoubtably unattainable. From a practical perspective, I believe justice is when measures are taken to restore to right what has been wronged.

So while I believe the correct verdict was pronounced, that is where I find I am unable to say justice was served in the Chauvin trial. Clearly the wrong was that George Floyd no longer walks this earth due to the actions of Chauvin. But there is no way to right that. Sending Chauvin to prison, no matter how right that action may be, will not bring George Floyd back to life. In this case, and the other thousands of murders and wrongful deaths annually, justice was not and cannot be served. Wrestle with it as we may, you simply cannot unring a bell.

Make no mistake, justice should be sought out when available and retribution must be meted out when it is not. But we need to be careful not to confuse the two when actions are taken. Perhaps the novelist Robert Jordan put it most succinctly when he said, “Men often mistake killing and revenge for justice. They seldom have the stomach for justice.


Tommy Druen is a native of Metcalfe County, a graduate of Centre College in Danville, and currently resides in Georgetown with his wife and two children.