Sometimes certain things connect in a way that brings tears to one’s eyes. Or maybe it’s just me, still looking for a hero, i.e., a person of integrity and competence in public life.
This week, as the state and local fiscal years begin, we celebrate the 37th anniversary of the date Proposition 21/2’s levy limit went into effect. I realize the 37th anniversary is usually not a big deal: Instead of silver and gold, it is represented by a gift of alabaster. This was a valued good at the time of the ancient Greeks, which is appropriate because I want to tell you about a modern philosopher-judge who is one reason we still have property tax limitation. And for a change, I haven’t waited until he is dead to praise him.
Prop 2½ was an initiative petition, passed by the voters in November of 1980. Some public employee unions immediately mounted a court challenge, arguing that it was the end of civilization as we know it, not to mention a violation of freedom of religion (?). Since the petition was now a law, it was defended by the Attorney General’s office: Attorney General Frank Bellotti assigned two young attorneys, Donald Stern and James Aloisi, whom we heard about often in future years, to defend it, which they did well.
The case was heard by one associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Judge William G. Young. His ruling, as I recall it: “Whether Proposition 21/2 is foolish or farsighted is no business of the courts.”
I was young and impulsive. I actually called to thank the judge for his extraordinary wisdom and turn of phrase. He mildly scolded me, telling me he might have to rule on an appeal and therefore couldn’t discuss the case with me. I was mildly embarrassed and never called a judge again — but over the years, I followed his career with admiration that never flagged. He was nominated for a federal judgeship by President Reagan, and one case over which he much later presided was the trial of the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2003.
Just before his sentencing to life imprisonment, Reid noted his status as an enemy combatant in a war against the enemies of Islam. Judge Young’s response has been circulating on the Internet for years, but an excerpt is worth repeating here for Independence Day:
“Now, let me explain this to you. We are not afraid of you or any of your terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have been through the fire before … Here in this court, we deal with individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as individuals. As human beings, we reach out for justice.
You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier, gives you far too much stature. Whether the officers of government do it or your attorney does it, or if you think you are a soldier, you are not — you are a terrorist. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not meet with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists. We hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice.
So war talk is way out of line in this court. You are a big fellow. But you are not that big. You’re no warrior. I’ve known warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal that is guilty of multiple attempted murders. In a very real sense, State Trooper Santiago had it right when you first were taken off that plane and into custody, and you wondered where the press and the TV crews were, and he said:
‘You’re no big deal.’
You *are* no big deal.
What your able counsel and what the equally able United States attorneys have grappled with and what I have as honestly as I know how tried to grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it that led you here to this courtroom today?
I have listened respectfully to what you have to say. And I ask you to search your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led you to do what you are guilty and admit you are guilty of doing? And, I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you, but as I search this entire record, it comes as close to understanding as I know.
It seems to me you hate the one thing that to us is most precious. You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not believe as we individually choose. Here, in this society, the very wind carries freedom. It carries it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom, so that everyone can see, truly see, that justice is administered fairly, individually, and discreetly.
We Americans are all about freedom. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties. Make no mistake, though. It is yet true that we will bear any burden, pay any price, to preserve our freedoms. Look around this courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember what you or I say here. The day after tomorrow, it will be forgotten, but this, however, will long endure …
See that flag, Mr. Reid? That’s the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag stands for freedom. And it always will.”
Judge Young is retired now from judging and is a professor at Boston University Law School. I think this means I can thank him now: not for his ruling on Prop 21/2, which was only correct, but for those wise words from 2003 that have not yet been forgotten, and are needed more today than ever.
Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.