We expect a lot from the courts—probably far too much. They are asked to tackle complex social quagmires like race and abortion, resolve historic corporate disputes, cure addictions, mediate longstanding family battles, place children in loving homes and more.
In New Jersey this week the limitations of criminal courts were again made apparent. An appellate court there dismissed criminal convictions against Dharun Ravi. Ravi is the Rutgers University student who, in 2010, videotaped his roommate, Tyler Clementi, making out with another man in the college dorm room Clementi and Ravi shared. Ravi showed other students the video, and Clementi tragically committed suicide by jumping to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Ravi was arrested, tried and convicted on bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other criminal charges. Interestingly, Ravi was not charged in court with causing Clementi’s death. In charging Ravi, Middlesex County N.J., prosecutors had noble objectives—Ravi acted terribly and clearly contributed to Clementi’s profound sadness and embarrassment to the point he could no longer bear it. Death, for him, was preferable.
Public outrage led prosecutors to do what prosecutors do: make arrests. But New Jersey prosecutors couldn’t charge Ravi with manslaughter since the state law requires evidence—proof—that Ravi caused Clementi’s death under circumstances “manifesting extreme indifference to human life.” Legally proving Ravi caused Clementi’s death was a steep mountain to climb. Ravi was the cause of Clementi’s state of mind, no doubt. His cruel, demeaning and mean-spirited actions, for which there is no conceivable justification, deserve the wrath of a modern society. But was Clementi’s reaction a foreseeable one? Courts wrestle often with the concept of what a person “should have known” when deciding whom to hold accountable for crimes or civil torts.
The bias intimidation charges the Middlesex County prosecutor charged were, like many bias crimes states have enacted, tools to confront violence fueled by modern-day racial or gender discrimination. These offenses, often referred to as “hate crimes,” run into legal trouble when they punish hateful opinions rather than conduct (as unpopular opinions are rigorously protected by the First Amendment) or when it becomes impossible for courts to determine exactly what motivated the bad actor. The New Jersey bias intimidation law has come under recent scrutiny for the latter problem.
Middlesex County prosecutors have to decide now whether to take another appeal or re-try Ravi. The New Jersey Appellate Court was not pleased with the task of having to reverse Ravi’s convictions. In doing so, though, they acknowledged the inherent limitations of courts to resolve social woes. They said, in part:
“From a societal perspective, this case has exposed some of the latent dangers concealed by the seemingly magical powers of the internet. The implications associated with the misuse of technological advances lies beyond the court’s competency to address.”
Clementi’s parents might have had an easier time holding Ravi or the university responsible in a civil court rather than a criminal court had they chosen to file a “wrongful death” suit, as civil courts have a lower standard for establishing causal connections. To their credit, the parents instead established a charitable foundation in their son’s name. The Tyler Clementi Foundation will do more to combat discrimination than either legislation or the adversarial jousting of litigation can. Sometimes it’s better for lawyers to recognize the institutional limitations of the law to fix what is obviously broken.