The price of civilization

Issue March 2013 By Robert L. Holloway Jr.

Many years ago, the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated, "I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization." Imagine any public figure saying that today.

Today we have many among us who would revile Holmes, believing that taxes are, at best, a necessary evil. Those who would treat Holmes in that manner should heed the philosopher George Santayana's famous statement: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Remembering the past of course implies knowing about the past in the first place. Too many, I think, speak from ignorance, however well intentioned that ignorance may be.

The word "taxes" is invoked today in too many quarters as if it were an obscenity. I am reminded of yet another famous quotation, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) regarding obscenity. As he struggled with the definition of obscenity, he said simply, "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture in this case is not that."

If we substitute "taxes" for the motion picture Stewart was grappling with and conclude that taxes are not an obscenity, you will catch my drift -- or get the picture.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, home of many great lawyers and jurists throughout our history and the history of our great nation, now ranks 48th in compensation for judges among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, when compensation is adjusted for cost of living. Only Vermont, Hawaii and Maine are lower in this ranking.

Is this where Massachusetts wants to be? At the bottom? I confess, as a matter of philosophy, not being a fan of rankings, but where our great commonwealth stands in this matter of judicial compensation is both illuminating and, I think, shameful.

I know there are many demands on our tax dollars, and I know that many among us are struggling to recover from the substantial economic downturn of the last several years. But, it is a fact that our society, as a whole, measures success and value in economic terms. Whether or not you, individual readers, or I, do so is presently beside the point. If our judges are objectively underpaid -- which I submit to you the overwhelming evidence indicates they are --then we are saying, as citizens of this commonwealth, that we do not value judges' services.

Is that the statement we want to make in this commonwealth? I think not, and I hope not.

So, I invoke again Holmes to ask all of us to "buy civilization" by supporting increased compensation for our judges. In doing so, we will be making a positive statement not just about our judges, but also about our entire system of justice and how we view ourselves as members of a civilized society. Our legal system and our judges are the gatekeepers of our civilized society, after all, guarding over our laws and rules, striving to provide a level playing field for everyone in our system of justice. It is only fitting that our gatekeepers be recognized appropriately by providing them with fair compensation. While that is not now the case, it can and should be the case. That's why I urge you to "buy civilization." That's what this is all about.