It is a distinct privilege to be with you and to join my predecessors as Attorney General-Elliot Richardson, Judge Griffin Bell,and William French Smith-in becoming a Cecil Sims Lecturer.One of the best features of university life is the freedom it affords to pursue the search for knowledge. In virtually all disciplines an understanding of certain truths, of the way various historical or scientific facts fit together, is an important starting point for further learning and deliberation. The search for truth is also a tremendously important undertaking beyond the campus walls,especially in the realm of criminal justice. That endeavor, the effort to arrive at an accurate assessment of the truth or falsity of charges of criminal misconduct, is the subject of my remarks today.To most of us the point of a criminal trial is to determine whether the defendant did what he is accused of and to impose a just sentence if he is convicted on the basis of that determination.Getting the correct answer in this context is of the utmost importance. Mistakes in one direction will falsely brand innocent people as criminals and punish them unjustly. Mistakes in the other direction, freeing guilty defendants, also have dire consequences.Dangerous individuals may be set loose upon society, public respect for the legal system may be diminished, and, most importantly, justice will not be done. The objectives of protecting the public from the offender and deterring others from committing crimes cannot be achieved if guilt is not accurately established.These objectives are not casual concerns, but the basic reasons that a criminal justice system exists. If the truth cannot be discovered and acted on, the criminal justice system fails in its basic mission. Indeed, the state itself fails in its most fundamental responsibility. Accordingly, I'm reminded of the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the Justice's father, who said: "Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening."'If you'll pardon the expression, there are too many ways truth is kept out of play today in the arenas of our courts. We need to look seriously at the various ways in which truth finding has been frustrated. My purpose today is to consider whether the vital objective of truth has been subordinated to other interests and whether the hurdles placed between the facts on the one hand and the judge or jury on the other can be justified. There are, of course, many such hurdles. I won't talk about all of them. But let me focus my attention on several of the most significant.
Edwin Meese, III,
Promoting Truth in the Courtroom,
40 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol40/iss2/1