I Swear

criminal justice, Religion

The Westchester County (New York) Courthouse was built in 1973. When the Dumbest Trial of the Century ended I googled for this information. I had guessed the courtrooms, at least, dated from the 1960s or 1970s. The courtrooms are all in blond wood — cold, blocky, and graceless — and back then when people talked about “modern” decor there was nearly always blond wood involved.

In the front of the “dumbest trial” courtroom, high on the wall above the judges’ chair, the words IN GOD WE TRUST were carved in capital letters in the blond wood. And a Bible was kept on the witness stand for the swearing-in of witnesses. All the witnesses were asked by the clerk to put their left hands on the Bible and raise their right hands. (These directions confounded some of the witnesses, who needed reminding which hand was which. That was often the best part of their testimony.)

I realize that to many citizens religion is a primitive and irrational cult. And, of course, lots of religion is a primitive and irrational cult. The inscription didn’t bother me, but if I’d had anything to say about it I would have chosen something else out of consideration for non-believing citizens. Maybe “Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives every man his due” (Cicero) or “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens” (unknown) or, my favorite, “The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be” (Raymond Chandler). Hey, it’s a big wall. But then, I would have stipulated oak paneling and furniture in a Mission or Shaker style, with bright red and blue cushions and carpeting. That courtroom was just too … beige.

But the swearing on a Bible thing concerns me a little. I don’t know if all judges still expect people to swear on Bibles, but the “dumbest trial” judge, apparently, did. I wonder what happens if a witness doesn’t want to swear on a Bible? This might be OK with the judge, but wouldn’t it be prejudicial to some jurors?

As far as church-state issues go, this one hardly belongs at the top of the list. I’d like to hear other opinions, though.

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  1. jeffreyw  •  Dec 22, 2006 @9:18 pm

    The only time I was sworn as a witness was in a drunk driving/leaving the scene type case. All they wanted me to do was to raise my hand and swear to tell the truth, no bible as prop. I had given some thought to what I would do, as an atheist, if they brought out a bible. I had decided to just go through the motions, as it seemed not the place to make a scene, but I was happy that they took my word without needing to imply that without a fear of divine retribution I might just make shit up.

  2. Swami  •  Dec 22, 2006 @10:01 pm

    I’d have some problems swearing on a bible. To me it would constitute a validation that the bible contains a source of authority which to me is unacceptable Even at that, the bible commands in one of it’s passages that we should swear by neither heaven nor hell, but just speak our truth of it’s own power( or something like that). I don’t have a problem with a generic god (the god of nature),but the generic god hasn’t given us his infallible word.

    I once had a neighbor who was instructed by a judge to swear before the court that his testimony would be true – a simple, I swear to tell the truth.. My neighbor wanted to convey his born again Christianity to the court room, so he said, “I swear by my heavenly father”. The Judge gave him an ass chewing for not following the instructions of the court.

  3. Joe  •  Dec 22, 2006 @10:19 pm

    Why should it matter? If you lie under oath, they’ll come after you with the law, not you’r god.

  4. Joe  •  Dec 22, 2006 @10:21 pm

    edit: your god.

  5. xpara  •  Dec 22, 2006 @10:36 pm

    I know of no court in the U.S. that requires one to swear on a Bible if you would rather affirm. (As in the oath the President elect must take upon in inauguration). Since there can be no religious test, your testimony, Constitutionally, is as good as that of the most egregious Bible thumber (or thumper). Would a jury notice that you “affirm” instead of “swear”? Probably, at first. But if your testimony is accurate and convincing, I think they would forget about it soon enough.

  6. maha  •  Dec 22, 2006 @10:52 pm

    I know of no court in the U.S. that requires one to swear on a Bible if you would rather affirm.

    Certainly, but let’s say a jury has watched 9 witnesses swear on a Bible. Now along comes witness 10, and before the witness swears the attorney talks to the judge and the judge talks to the clerk, and then the witness promises to tell the truth without putting a hand on a Bible. The jury will notice this.The judge might even explain to the jury that the witness prefers not to swear on a Bible but the jury should not infer anything from this. Some jurors might make an issue of it anyway.

  7. atablarasa  •  Dec 23, 2006 @12:53 am

    The jury does notice. Used to work in a courthouse and heard all kinds of jury polls. Still, they also hear the truth if it’s offered well.

  8. Donna  •  Dec 23, 2006 @1:52 am

    Last spring, I was subpoenaed to testify in court against my next door neighbor [what a bummer to have to testify….. I’ve always liked him and his wife as neighbors]. He was drunk and shot off a 44 magnum out his back yard at a tomato-stealing raccoon…..a felony offense to discharge a firearm within the city limits. ‘Course, that loud gunshot woke up the town and he sobered up immediately when the police came.

    No Bibles in that courtroom. I just had to hold up my right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Being a leftie, I mean left-handed as well as a leftie, I wonder why I shouldn’t hold up my dominant hand? Just kidding……but hey, this ritual is made up of established usages. I am glad that our courts leave a religion-based oath out of it.

  9. cosette  •  Dec 23, 2006 @6:35 am

    I’m really beginning to hate anything that smacks of religion. And I think it’s inappropriate to use a bible in a courtroom. Or any kind of religious book for swearing in to anything.

  10. lou  •  Dec 23, 2006 @8:39 am

    Guess it beats, “Ok, see these two wires here? You tell us all you know about this jerk off or we’ll wrap these wires around your testicles and turn up the current!” Probably wouldn’t take long before you were swearing to god. Sometimes going along with the system doesn’t mean you agree with it or defend it. Give them their symbols and they’ll be none the wiser as you craft your real art.

  11. joanr16  •  Dec 23, 2006 @11:38 am

    I’d probably swear on their stupid bible if I thought not doing so would make the jurors think I was lying. But if they wanted to hold me to something sacred, they’d be better off having me swear on the Complete Works of Shakespeare, or a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

  12. Brian  •  Dec 23, 2006 @12:47 pm

    Based on my experience, it’s rare to have a witness swear on a Bible (shh, don’t tell the wingnuts). In some courts, a clerk will hold a Bible in his left hand while asking the witness to swear, but the Bible will not be presented to the witness.

    The bigger problem you mention is an inability to distinguish right from left. Several times, when I’ve been a passenger giving directions, I’ve had to tell drivers to turn “my way” or turn “your way” because right and left would not register quickly enough to avoid missing a turn. These drivers were otherwise competent and intelligent people, so I don’t know what causes this problem.

  13. grannyeagle  •  Dec 23, 2006 @1:23 pm

    Swami—Ahem! I believe it is the goddess of nature not god so it would be HER infallible word.

  14. maha  •  Dec 23, 2006 @1:38 pm

    Brian et al. — the more I think about it, the more it seems the judge of the “dumbest trial” (let’s call him “Judge A” for brevity) is putting an unfair burden on people who don’t want to swear on a Bible. If a witness enters the courtroom and is confronted (possibly to his surprise) with directions to swear on a Bible, and he doesn’t want to, the burden is on him to object.

  15. paradoctor  •  Dec 23, 2006 @2:15 pm

    The funny thing is that swearing on the Bible is precisely what is meant by ‘taking the name in vain’. So to swear on the Bible is to disobey it!

  16. Doug Hughes  •  Dec 23, 2006 @8:52 pm

    If I may be permitted to quote Thomas Jefferson…

    “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs. If it be said, his testimony in a court cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man.”

    Now I am reading into the intent here; you are free to take a different meaning if you wish. I read the word ‘constraint’ to mean forcing a non-christian to swear on the Bible, and if you read it that way.. a more powerful indication of the intent of the founding fathers would be hard to find.