Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
The image of the American legal system is one-sided
Finnish-American judges emphasised the unglamorous aspects of their work.

Eveliina Olsson

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Last May, the Faculty of Law had the pleasant duty of hosting the visit of three Finnish-American judges. The judges lectured to the students on the work of a judge in the United States and its legal practises. The reality is far from the drama portrayed by the media and television series.

“The election of judges is just like any other political election. To be elected requires a campaign and a lot of money. When I first ran for judge in 1976, the campaign could still be realised with a relatively small amount of money. Now the campaign takes at least two million dollars,” says Miriam Mattinen Shearing, the recently retired Chief Justice of Nevada Supreme Court.

Shearing, and two other American judges of Finnish descent, John Pessala and Philip Kukkonen, lectured last May to the law students of the University of Helsinki on the legal practise in the United States. The visitors concluded this year’s Introduction to Law and the Legal System in the United States lecture course. The course is worth six credits and was organised for the second time. It is co-ordinated by Sari Laitinen, who studied law in the United States and worked there as a lawyer for 11 years, specialising in capital markets and business law.

According to Laitinen, the visiting lecturers illustrated to the students using real-life examples that there is no common legal system in the United States. “The country comprises 50 states and the federal state, and each has its own legislation,” Laitinen says.

The judges who lectured in Helsinki represent different states and courts. Shearing’s career took her to various courts in the State of Nevada, the Supreme Court being the one she retired from. John Pessala is a judge at the Nassau County Family Court in the State of New York, and Philip Kukkonen is a District Court judge in the State of Michigan.

Case overload a common challenge

The political nature of the judge election process, the absence of a minimum age for criminal responsibility, the risk of losing civil rights and the death penalty were elements in the American legal system that aroused most interest among the law students attending the lectures. The students asked, for example, whether it was possible for a criminal to lose the right to vote indefinitely. “In the State of Nevada, it is fairly easy for petty criminals to have their full basic rights restored. The right to vote is a basic right. The practice varies a lot from one state to the next,” says Miriam Mattinen Shearing, and adds that she shares the other judges’ regret that the image of the American justice system in the media is misrepresentative.

“The everyday work at the District Court is far from how television series portray it,” says Philip Kukkonen, “Our jobs mainly consist of making decisions on cases of petty larceny, drunk driving and domestic violence. Most cases are connected with alcohol or drug abuse.”

Shearing takes the death penalty as a good example of how the public debate takes only one specific element of the American legal system under scrutiny, and how this then comes to represent

the entire system in people’s minds. “In reality, the death penalty is very rarely applied compared to the overall number of court cases,” says Shearing, in whose state the death penalty is applied, but is decided on by a jury, not by a judge. “I have no philosophical problem with capital punishment, but still I don’t like it. The practise, because of its extremely complicated appeal process, is simply a waste of court resources.”

She, as well as John Pessala and Philip Kukkonen, find that the most serious threat to the American legal system is the excessive caseload. They recommend more resources be allocated to courts to deal with the build-up. “My court has had eight judges over ten years. In that period, the number of cases has tripled,” John Pessala says.

Back to winter issue 2006