things connect in a way that brings tears to one’s eyes. Or maybe
it’s just me, still looking for a hero, i.e., a person of integrity
and competence in public life.
This week, as the state
and local fiscal years begin, we celebrate the 37th anniversary of
the date Proposition 2½’s levy limit went into effect. I realize the
37th anniversary is usually not a big deal: Instead of silver and
gold, it is represented by a gift of alabaster. This was a valued
good at the time of the ancient Greeks, which is appropriate because
I want to tell you about a modern philosopher-judge who is one
reason we still have property tax limitation. And for a change, I
haven’t waited until he is dead to praise him.
Prop 2½ was an
initiative petition, passed by the voters in November of 1980. Some
public employee unions immediately mounted a court challenge,
arguing that it was the end of civilization as we know it, not to
mention a violation of freedom of religion (?). Since the petition
was now a law, it was defended by the Attorney General’s office:
Attorney General Frank Bellotti assigned two young attorneys, Donald
Stern and James Aloisi, whom we heard about often in future years,
to defend it, which they did well.
The case was heard by
one associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court,
Judge William G. Young. His ruling, as I recall it: “Whether
Proposition 2½ is foolish or farsighted is no business of the
I was young and
impulsive. I actually called to thank the judge for his
extraordinary wisdom and turn of phrase. He mildly scolded me,
telling me he might have to rule on an appeal and therefore couldn’t
discuss the case with me. I was mildly embarrassed and never called
a judge again — but over the years, I followed his career with
admiration that never flagged. He was nominated for a federal
judgeship by President Reagan, and one case over which he much later
presided was the trial of the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2003.
Just before his
sentencing to life imprisonment, Reid noted his status as an enemy
combatant in a war against the enemies of Islam. Judge Young’s
response has been circulating on the Internet for years, but an
excerpt is worth repeating here for Independence Day:
"Now, let me
explain this to you.
"We are not afraid of you or any of your
terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have
been through the fire before … Here in this court, we deal with
individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as
individuals. As human beings, we reach out for justice.
"You are not an
enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in
any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to
call you a soldier, gives you far too much stature. Whether the
officers of government do it or your attorney does it, or if you
think you are a soldier, you are not — you are a terrorist. And
we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not meet with
terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists. We hunt
them down one by one and bring them to justice.
"So war talk is way
out of line in this court. You are a big fellow. But you are not
that big. You’re no warrior. I’ve known warriors. You are a
terrorist. A species of criminal that is guilty of multiple
attempted murders. In a very real sense, State Trooper Santiago
had it right when you first were taken off that plane and into
custody, and you wondered where the press and the TV crews were,
and he said:
Judge William G. Young
Photo courtesy of Boston University
"'You’re no big
no big deal.
"What your able
counsel and what the equally able United States attorneys have
grappled with and what I have as honestly as I know how tried to
grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it
that led you here to this courtroom today?
"I have listened
respectfully to what you have to say. And I ask you to search
your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led
you to do what you are guilty and admit you are guilty of doing?
And, I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you, but as I
search this entire record, it comes as close to understanding as
"It seems to me you
hate the one thing that to us is most precious. You hate our
freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live
as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not
believe as we individually choose. Here, in this society, the
very wind carries freedom. It carries it everywhere from sea to
shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much
that you are here in this beautiful courtroom, so that everyone
can see, truly see, that justice is administered fairly,
individually, and discreetly.
"We Americans are
all about freedom. Because we all know that the way we treat
you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties. Make no
mistake, though. It is yet true that we will bear any burden,
pay any price, to preserve our freedoms. Look around this
courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember
what you or I say here. The day after tomorrow, it will be
forgotten, but this, however, will long endure …
"See that flag, Mr.
Reid? That’s the flag of the United States of America. That flag
will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag
stands for freedom. And it always will.”
Judge Young is retired
now from judging and is a professor at Boston University Law School.
I think this means I can thank him now: not for his ruling on Prop
2½, which was only correct, but for those wise words from 2003 that
have not yet been forgotten, and are needed more today than ever.