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In the last 4,000 years, since the first written laws were created, according to some theories, there’s been a question of if the written letter of the law is more or less important than the intention – or spirit – of the law.
Of course, the ethics or ethos behind a law may differ in some rather large ways from the actual written letter of the law. Part of this might be that the shared moral understandings behind a law are believed to be understood by the entire society or group. After all, what are laws but a way of encoding shared values and understandings of a group, and the consequences for breaking those understandings?
There is one argument that, since morality and ethics are not always shared, the letter of the law is the only thing we have to fall back on. Bill Gates, in an interview about taxes, highlighted that because the letter of the law is the only binding force, then it is our responsibility is to respect that letter of the law, rather than assuming that our own beliefs about the spirit may or may not be are more or less “right” than many of our neighbors.
Yet every day, we ask many people to interpret the spirit of the law. Judges are asked to make judgement calls every day. What laws should be enforced to what extent, with whom, and in what situation. The jury based system for criminal cases is supposed to help balance this, but when it comes to sentencing and non-criminal cases, it’s really up to the judge in the United States. There are times it feels quite right to preference the spirit of the law – like when a six year old is required to get a business license for their lemonade stand.
When at the same time, these judgement calls leave room up for interpretation. One National Judicial College writer, in talking about their experiences, explained that they had once Southern judge in class who readily admitted he treated offenders differently if “they weren’t our kind of people.” Which means the spirit of the law for him may be quite different than what our belief of the spirit might be.