Praise the Lord and Judge Norman
“I feel like church is important,” he said. “I sentenced him to go to church for 10 years because I thought I could do that.”
As for the constitutionality of his ruling, Judge Norman said, “I think it would hold up, but I don’t know one way or another.”
How many judges would admit to such wholesale ignorance of the law? Humble. The posterboy for humility. Oklahoma Judge Mike Norman is a very humble man. As reported in the New York Times, Norman was constrained to impose a sentence, and did what he thought was best.
The 17-year-old defendant, Tyler Alred, was prosecuted as a youthful offender, giving the judge more discretion than in an adult case. Mr. Alred pleaded guilty to manslaughter for an accident last year, when he ran his car into a tree and a 16-year-old passenger was killed.
Although his alcohol level tested below the legal limit, because he was under age he was legally considered to be under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Alred told the court that he was happy to agree to church attendance and other mandates — including that he finish high school and train as a welder, and shun alcohol, drugs and tobacco for a year. By doing so, he is avoiding a 10-year prison sentence and has a chance to make a fresh start.
As is often the case, the defendant was probably pretty darned happy with being sentenced to church for ten years. For one thing, it beats the hell out of prison. For another, there are cute girls in church, and you never know when one is going to take a shine to you. And of course, certain pockets of our fine God-fearing Christian nation believe that it's good for one's soul.
But what if Tyler Alred decides a couple of years from now that he prefers to pray to Mohammed instead of Jesus? Worse still, what if he decides that there is no zombie deity at all? Ten years is a long time, and 17-year-olds sometimes change their mind about things like religion. It can happen.
The unconstitutionality of a judge sentencing a person to religious adherence seems too obvious for discussion. Regardless of whether you believe that a stint in church won't do this young man any harm, likely because you happen to embrace its teachings and thus see no pragmatic problem, the constitutional thingy, the Establishment Clause, that prohibits a secular government from forcing religion upon anyone, gets in the way. You can't make the choice prison or Jesus, no matter how willing the penitent is to accept the latter or how strongly you believe that it's a good deal.
That humble Mike Norman doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of this issue, however, is disturbing. Norman is a judge. As a judge, he has the authority to make decisions that affect people's lives. No matter how much you appreciate humility in a man with power, you also need to be able to believe that he's not, well, clueless. From what he says, it's hard to believe that of Mike Norman.
In fairness, Norman didn't specify the religion to which he sentenced Alred.
Judge Norman did not specify which religious denomination Mr. Alred must follow. But he also said: “I think Jesus can help anybody. I know I need help from him every day.”
I bet Judge Norman needs Jesus' help every day. Probably numerous times a day. But Norman's choice of deity isn't the bar by which the law measures constitutionality or judicial competence.
The trend toward alternative sentences, punishment that doesn't require a person to go to jail or prison, and seeks another way to achieve the legitimate goals of a sentence, is generally a good one. Given our American love of imprisonment, offering judges an option that won't increase the prison population is certainly something that should be considered and applauded.
Yet, the alternatives that judges come up with too often reflect their peculiar personal vision of propriety, whether to carry a sign that says she's an "idiot" or to pray to God they don't get caught again. It seems impossible to believe that these judges have no appreciation of the limits of their authority, or their ability to impose bizarre sentences that either humiliate people for fun or violate the Constitution.
Humble is a good thing, in a person and even more so in a judge. But clueless is not. While alternatives to incarceration is also a good thing, commending a defendant to the hands of God is way outside a judge's authority. How is it possible that the people in whom we repose our secular legal faith don't know this?