April 18, 1997
Oath, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.
Ambrose Bierce c.1900
At his civil trial, O.J. Simpson lied, and lied and lied. This after placing his left hand on a Bible, raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth "so help me God." Was he struck dead? Of course not. It didn't even affect his golf swing.
What provoked this column was a bit on the morning news about the Irish Republican Army. It seems that their political wing has elected some six representatives to the British parliament. They weren't seated because they refused to take an oath of allegiance to The Queen. They go through all of the trouble campaigning to get a job, and then don't take it. It seems silly. Yet it seems more silly to have that oath, because it is meaningless. What happens when someone violates that oath? Absolutely nothing!
Every day, in this country, people swear in court or congress to tell the truth. If it is to their advantage to tell the truth, they do so. If not, they lie. Has anyone been punished for lying? Not if they aren't caught. And if they are caught at it, they are only occasionally prosecuted. If prosecuted, they are sometimes convicted. In other words, the deck is stacked in favor of the liar getting away with it. If it wasn't, there would be no commercials. Was detective Mark Furman, who lied on the stand at the first O.J. Simpson trial, ever prosecuted for lying? I don't think so, even though perjury (lying in court under oath) is taken more seriously that just plain lying.
In ancient times there were people who actually believed that God, or The Gods, would punish them for lying. Nowadays most people know better. No one, other than young children with responsible parents, is ever punished for lying. If a person is punished at all, it is for getting caught at it.
Most transactions in our everyday life depend on trust. When I purchase something by mail order and charge it to my credit card, I have excellent reason to believe that the merchant will behave as he is supposed to and will send me what I ordered and charge the correct amount to my credit card. If he makes a mistake, he will rectify it. I trust him because I have done so many times with little or no problem. The merchant knows that if his word isn't good, he will lose much more money than he would gain in a dishonest transaction. I have been short changed at a check stand a few times. I caught the mistake and it was immediately corrected. Sometimes the mistake has been in my favor. Once I was really short changed. Would it help if every checker took an oath of honesty? Of course not. The person who is a thief would swear to anything without any compunction.
The vast majority of people are honest and will not cheat you in a financial transaction. The few crooks are worth watching out for. Would trying to screen them out with an oath work? Of course not.
If oaths are silly, will they ever be eliminated? They will be eliminated when the outlandish costumes that judges wear are also eliminated, and when the necktie is relegated to obsolescence. In other words, they will be eliminated when we have a different world.
Return to the Law and Lawyers Home Page
Return to Ira's Home Page