The Sixth Amendment in the United States’ Bill of Rights (requiring a speedy trial, impartial jury, confrontation of witnesses, council, etc) is, perhaps, one of the most difficult to properly observe. After all, a judge is a human being with set opinions and subconscious biases. While the sixth Amendment addresses the practical logistics of a fair trial, Torah law addresses the behavior of the judges themselves.
In the first chapter of Deuteronomy, the Torah commands: “Hear [disputes] between your brothers and judge justly between a man and his brother, and between his litigant. You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man…”(Deut. 1:16-17).
According to Rabbi Hanina, a Talmudic sage, this verse serves as “a warning to the court not to listen to the claims of one litigant in the absence of his opponent; and to the litigant not to explain his case to the judge before his adversary appears” (Sanhedrin 7a).
And while Rabbi Hanina includes the litigants’ responsibility to refrain from taking advantage of being alone with the judge, the sages place a much greater focus on reminding the judges of the level of impartiality necessary to judge fairly. For instance, Reish Lakish reads the admonition “You shall judge righteously” (Deuteronomy 1:16) to mean, “Consider rightly all the aspects of the case before rendering the decision” (Sanhedrin 7a).
How far-reaching is the judge’s responsibility? The Talmud cites the case of Rav who was approached by a man at whose house he had once stayed. Upon hearing that the man had a lawsuit he needed adjudicated, Rav immediately disqualified himself and turned the case over to Rabbi Kahana (Sanhedrin 7a-7b).
Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.