Judges have some peculiar ideas about apology.
First, Solano County, California juvenile court judge, John Ellis made a youthful offender write an apology to his victim, in this case his former teacher.
Many judges force offenders to apologize to victims. I don’t think forced apologies are worth much. I think it’s great when offenders apologize to their victims, but the apology has to be voluntary for it to mean anything. But Judge Ellis forced a juvenile identified as J.C. to apologize to his teacher as a condition of probation. And the apology had to be more than 50 words, by court order.
But that’s not my main beef.
The youthful offender J.C. refused to apologize because he maintained his innocence. So the case was appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. The court ruled that innocence has nothing to do with it. J.C. could and should apologize while still maintaining his innocence. J.C. was ordered to apologize even if in his own mind he did nothing wrong.
Maybe we should quickly review the facts of the case.
J.C. had performed some household work for one of his high school teachers in Vallejo. Somewhat later, the teacher reported some jewelry was stolen. Then J.C. showed up in the teacher’s classroom wearing a pendant that the teacher recognized as among the stolen items.
J.C’s explanation was pathetic. He told the police that he had found the pendant while vacuuming several months earlier, and sily forgot to return it. Judge Ellis didn’t believe him and ruled that J.C. was guilty of grand theft. He put J.C. on three years’ probation and ordered him to write an apology, of at least 50 words, to his teacher.
But J.C. refused to apologize and appealed. His lawyer argued that the compelled apology would violate J.C.’s constitutional right against having to incriminate himself. But the First District Court of Appeal said an apology doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt.
In a 3-0 ruling, the court betrayed a total misunderstanding of apology. The court even turned to the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines an apology as an expression of regret, and defines regret as “a feeling of sorrow, disappointment, distress, or remorse about something that one wishes could be different.” So far so good. But then the court ruled that J.C. could satisfy the dictionary, and the judge’s order, by telling his teacher that he’s sorry for what happened to her, with his own explanation of how it happened.
In other words, the court contemplates an apology that expresses regret for what happened but denies responsibility.
That’s not an apology, that’s an expression of sympathy.
The whole point of apology is that it’s voluntary because the offender accepts the value of giving up the battle with the facts; because he values the relationship more than the need to be right.
Sometimes it’s important to hold out being right. Sometimes it’s important to apologize. It’s important to know the difference and courts should try to preserve the difference.