Monday, July 18, 2005

Swearing on "The Holy Scriptures" in North Carolina Courts

Dunno whether this has made the national news, but in North Carolina courtrooms, if you swear on a "holy" book it's got to be the Bible. The Koran is right out. This obviously has to change, but we're a red state, so it won't happen without the requisite fight against tradition.

You can simply affirm that you will tell the truth when you testify in a North Carolina court, and I've had to do so before. (Now that's a funny story, and I might even regale you with it at some point.) Thing is, you probably lose credibility when you do so. The court clerk (or whoever administers the oaths) rolled her eyes and said something like "whatever!" when the prosecutor said that I would "affirm"--and this was in Chapel Hill, the most liberal place in the state by far. I though I was being a good citizen, since swearing on the Bible means absolutely nothing to me--it's like asking me to swear on Moby Dick or a credit card application from BP. So I figured I should tell them that they were asking me to bind myself with an oath that I considered utterly meaningless. Simply affirming that you'll tell the truth, however, doesn't tacitly make your oath contingent on your belief in the veracity of the Bible. Of course, if you'd lie in the first place you'd probably lie about whether you'd lie or not, but waddaya gonna do?

But, anyway, by insisting that people who swear on a "holy" book must swear on the Bible, NC courts are--if I understand the concept of swearing on books rightly--making it easier for e.g. Buddhists to lie. Heck, make it a requirement to swear on the Bible if you like, guys, that just means that the oath will have no effect on most of the population of the world.

I've long thought--as have others--that we should be asked to swear on the Constitution. Now THAT would have binding force.

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if you're a citizen of a country other than the USA who's providing testimony in a US court? Asking such a person -- and, to paraphrase Apu Nahasapeemapetilan, there are almost six billion of us -- to swear on the US Constitution is the secularist equivalent of asking a Jew to swear on a copy of the New Testament.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Damn fine point. Guess we'd have to figure out something else for 'em.

4:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only is an oath upon the Bible meaningless for many witnesses, it is inappropriate for all witnesses. Further, a provision allowing the oath to be customized to each witness is neither feasible nor productive of binding oaths. An oath upon the US Constitution is both feasible, binding (though not , and

An oath upon the Bible appeals to the moral authority of God, and any suitable alternative will appeal to the moral authority accepted by the witness. Allowing for this perfect substitution (and ignoring the problems involved in an appeal to moral authority), the oath is considered morally binding by the witness. I can think of three problems with such a solution: (i) the witness could lie about his convictions, producing an oath which is not considered morally binding, (ii) even if the witness’s convictions were determinable in spite of their deceit, no oath could bind a nihilist, and (iii) often the witness is legally obligated to give testimony, and thus forced to take an oath, violating good faith, and nullifying the oath.

A way out lies in a clear distinction between two types of obligation: legal and moral. Morality is irrelevant in courts of law; they are concerned only with legality, i.e. the legal obligations as outlined by the government in a legislative process. Ultimately, the foundation for the authority of the government, the validity of the legislative process, and of all legal obligation, is the US Constitution; each step in producing legal obligation must be consistent with that document. When giving testimony in a US court, an oath upon the Constitution appeals to its legal authority, and amounts to recognizing the legal authority of the court and the legal obligation to be truthful.

The legal obligation to testify is only present for those already under the authority of the relevant legislation, American citizens and certain well-identified others. For them the oath marks the beginning of their testimony, during which they are legally obliged to be truthful. In the case of many foreign citizens, i.e. when the legal obligation to testify is absent, they may choose to testify. Such an oath upon the US Constitution is made in good faith; it is an appeal to the source of legal authority in this country, it recognizes the authority of the courts, and it accepts the legal obligations regarding his testimony. In either case, the oath is legally binding.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James 5:12 is quite explicit on the subject of oaths, as is Matthew 5:37.

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