Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Judgment call

The ruling that freed a Georgia man in a sex case wasn't judicial activism, it was righting a wrong.

October 30, 2007

Genarlow Wilson, who was sentenced to a decade in prison and branded a child molester for having consensual sex with another teenager, is a free man, thanks to what some would call judicial activism. In releasing Wilson, who was 17 when he had oral sex with a 15-year-old girl, the Georgia Supreme Court has done more than redress an individual injustice. It has reminded this nation that judges are not just bureaucrats or (as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. once suggested) umpires. They are, and should be, righters of wrongs.

It's hard to imagine anyone more wronged by the criminal justice system than Wilson, who has spent the last 32 months behind bars. Now 21, he was a high school student when he was convicted of aggravated child molestation, an offense carrying a minimum prison term of 10 years and thereafter requiring registration as a sex offender.

Whether Wilson, an African American, was a victim of racial bias or simply of a draconian statute, his sentence and his demonization as a child molester amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Georgia's Legislature seemed to recognize as much last year when it reclassified conduct such as Wilson's as a misdemeanor that wouldn't require registration as a sex offender.

In her opinion for a four-justice majority, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears rightly took note of that "seismic shift in the Legislature's view of the gravity of oral sex between two willing teenage participants." The U.S. Supreme Court likewise has considered "evolving standards of decency" in deciding whether a punishment was cruel and unusual in violation of the 8th Amendment.

But three dissenters would have strained the quality of mercy. In an opinion written by Justice George H. Carley, they noted that the Legislature explicitly directed that the new, more lenient law "shall not affect or abate the status as a crime" of offenses committed under the old law. Therefore, Wilson couldn't benefit from the Legislature's decision to correct the injustice of which he was the principal symbol. Better that he remain in prison, the dissenters suggested, than that Georgia be subjected to the "tyranny of the judiciary."

Judges can overstep their authority in thwarting the enactments of elected legislatures (though judicial activism is often in the eye of the beholder). But judges who free the wrongfully imprisoned aren't doing someone else's job. They're doing their own.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|