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South Williamsport, PA
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County Hall Corner: Justice Defined

Social justice is a popular term these days, and like other terms that capture the public consciousness, they are often not understood. As Abraham Lincoln so wisely noted, imagining that a horse’s tail is a leg does not change the fact that a horse has four legs. Reality is what it is. Justice is defined

Social justice is a popular term these days, and like other terms that capture the public consciousness, they are often not understood. As Abraham Lincoln so wisely noted, imagining that a horse’s tail is a leg does not change the fact that a horse has four legs. Reality is what it is.

Justice is defined as establishing fairness and equality of behavior toward all, particularly in the administration of law. This begins with the ‘rule of law,’ meaning the same rules apply to everyone, and these rules have the purpose of protecting the interest of the citizens and not a favored few. The importance of this simple concept cannot be overemphasized. P. J. O’Rourke wrote an incredibly insightful book entitled “Eat the Rich,” in which he sought to discover what made a country prosperous. He studied countries worldwide, and his analysis showed that what brought prosperity to a nation was not as much based on their form of government or natural resources, but the social structures upholding the society — primarily the rule of law.

For example, imagine a case that would come before a Lycoming County Judge in which the judge knew the defendant and decided to give the person a break. Right after this case would be another individual charged with exactly the same offense and the judge sentences that person harshly. We would be outraged because this would be unfair and unjust. Yet, this very scenario of inequitable justice is played out in countries all over the world on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, it is very difficult to conduct normal business operations in a country where the law is so capricious. From personal experience in what are politely called, “developing nations,” bribes, kickbacks, payoffs, and such are the norm. And make no mistake; this directly impacts economic development. As the wise Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarishas so succinctly phrased it, “Where there is no bread, there is no Law. Where there is no Law, there is no bread.”

But the law itself must be just. Segregation of races was the law of the land in the Deep South up until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. But notice here, this act ‘outlawed’ actions that were in place, it did not determine what should replace them. The Civil Rights Act was a no-brainer as such, but the much more challenging effort was to determine what laws should be established that would be just. And that is not easy. The past five decades are testimony of that fact.

Law itself is empty unless it is enforced. From personal experience as a township supervisor, I remember being asked by our constituents to enforce a particular ordinance on our books, only for us to frankly admit we did not have the enforcement means to do so. The opposite was true also. When the Chesapeake Bay Initiative Act of 1998 was enacted, the federal government’s hammer came upon us to pass ordinances such as septic system pumping requirements that were strictly enforced by the federal authorities.

So, back to justice again, a law must be necessary, equitable, and enforceable to be just. However, the reality of life is that all this may still lead to an imbalance in justice. For example, Lycoming County was struggling with holding jury trials due to the COVID restrictions, but the delay was not impacting those on bail as much as those who could not afford bail and were incarcerated. Two individuals facing the same charges — one is free walking around (with a mask, of course), and the other is locked up 24/7 in the county prison. Is that just?

In Lycoming County, we are not experiencing the turmoil that we see in big cities and other large population areas, but make no mistake about it, the same issues are here with us as well. Are our laws enforced equitably, or does living in certain neighborhoods get better protection than others — or perhaps more than is necessary that portrays a menacing atmosphere? Is it fair and just that because of municipal boundaries, one person pays far more in taxes for these services than a neighbor just across the street? How much police presence is prudent at a demonstration to maintain order, and how much is too much that appears intimidating to those who are expressing dissent from popular opinion?

We must humbly admit that reasonable people may disagree on these points. To the credit of Lycoming County, the law enforcement and judicial system work extremely well, and although not perfect, to be sure, the leaders in these fields are first-rate. In personal conversations with many of the key individuals, it is amazing how much they are constantly examining their organization’s practices and seeking to carry on their responsibilities more effectively for the general public.

A word of warning to those who take a “scofflaw” attitude, justice in Lycoming County, never takes a vacation. At the same time, those who are advocating for a more clear definition of ‘social justice’ in the changing climate of our times have a right to be heard, and should be heard as well, because the Great American Experiment that began in 1776 is still a work in process today.

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