A Woman and a Judge

'Give Me Justice Against My Adversary'
By Phil Haslanger 10-18-2016
Tyler McKay / Shutterstock.com

A woman standing before a judge.

It’s a scene from a story of Jesus 2,000 years ago, talking about a widow pleading for justice from an unresponsive judge.

It’s a story from a Madison, Wis., courtroom this year.

The story comes from Jillian Falligant, a legal advocate at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Madison. She and her colleagues go to court with women – and men, but more often women – who have been violently abused by their intimate partners – a husband, a boyfriend, a relative.

“Why didn’t you call the police?” the judge asked the woman earlier this month.

Jillian said that question comes up in court even more than “why didn’t you leave?” Judges diminish the credibility of the victim if she has not called the police. They don’t understand, explained Jillian, the numerous reasons why a survivor never calls the police.

In this case, had the woman called the police, she would have risked eviction from her apartment. Recent legislation has made it extremely easy for landlords to evict tenants due to police contact (regardless of being the victim of domestic violence).

The judge denied giving the woman an injunction to offer her some protection from her abuser.

“Give me justice against my adversary,” the woman in Jesus’ story said to the judge.

“Give me justice against my adversary,” the woman in Jillian’s story said to the judge.

Another story from Jillian.

Wisconsin law allows people to seek a 10-year injunction in cases where homicide or sexual assault is likely. Jillian writes:

“One of my clients did a phenomenal job providing her testimony regarding the abuse she endured, but she was denied the ten-year restraining order. The judge didn’t feel that she proved that he was capable of homicide, despite the pending strangulation and false imprisonment charges that he was facing.

“While she was grateful for the four-year injunction, she was devastated that the court system didn’t seem to think that her situation was dangerous enough for longer protection. A few weeks later, her abuser moved into an apartment three houses down from her because a loophole in the injunction language. Imagine the terror that she felt.”

“Give me justice against my adversary,” the woman in Jesus’ story said to the judge.

One more story from Jillian.

“I had a client who had an injunction against her abuser, but as many abusers do, he was able to draw her back into the relationship with false claims that he would change. She dropped the injunction order.

“A year later, she once again decided to leave, because the abuse was getting really bad. She sought another injunction against him, and her case happened to get assigned to the same judge. The judge was livid that she was asking for another injunction after having the initial one dismissed.

“The judge asked the client why she deserved another injunction if she ‘was just going to run back to him again?’

“Clearly no one ever taught this judge about the barriers to leaving a relationship and how many attempts it takes a survivor to leave for good. The focus of the hearing shifted from the abuser’s behavior to the survivor’s ‘mistake’ of going back to an abusive relationship. The case was dismissed.”

Jillian added this: “Those are just a few of the many injustices that I see in the courtroom.”

“Give me justice against my adversary,” the woman in Jesus’ story said to the judge.

But it is not just in the courtroom where women are not always believed. If you have been following the news over the last few weeks, you have seen and heard and read about so many vivid and horrifying examples, whether it be sexual assault or domestic violence.

Let’s try to put aside the political ramifications of all this. The feelings and emotions that have been unleashed reach far beyond any single candidate. They get to the core of our lives — how we treat one another, how we stand up for those who are under assault, how we live as men and women in our society.

It also gets to the way our children grow up — their experiences in their homes and the messages they get from the wider culture.

We have heard how hard it is for women to come tell their stories, whether it is about domestic violence or sexual assault.

We have heard the disbelief that greets them when they do come forward.

We have heard the extraordinary difficulties of balancing their human dignity with the very real imperatives of maintaining a job or caring for their children or simply surviving.

When Jesus was talking to the crowds in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, he told them, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give.”

Yet we are so quick to judge people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Why didn't she call the police?

Why did she go back to the man who was abusing her?

Why didn’t she report the sexual predator to human resources?

Why did she wait so many years to tell this story that so terribly humiliated her, that was so incredibly hard to relive?

Notice the pronoun “she” in all of those questions. It’s not that men do not experience violence from intimate partners or sexual abuse from others. But by far, this is an issue that men need to take on because most often it is men who are the perpetrators.

There are a number of organizations and faith communities in the Madison area and across the country focusing on making men allies in the effort to end intimate partner violence.

These are all important organizational efforts. But ultimately, it comes down to what we can do as individuals to move our culture to a place where it is not OK to laugh at someone’s tales of sexual exploitation, where it is not OK to pat somebody on the back when he talks about knocking his woman around a bit, where it is not OK to tell a woman just to keep her discomfort to herself.

There is good news in the Christian tradition that can offer us hope.

The good news that God loves us.

The good news that we are all created in God’s image and likeness.

The good news that we are called to live out God’s love in the way we respect others.

And the good news that we heard in Jesus’ story. The woman could not get justice from the judge. She did not give up. She kept her eyes on the prize and held on.

And the judge? Well, the story tells us he said, “I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me.”

We can’t give up on our efforts to make justice a reality for all, to change the world around us.

Change our world so that the stories of victims are heard. Change our world so the mistreated have the support to come forward. Change our world so that intimate partners no longer face violence, so that women are no longer sexually assaulted in the workplace or anywhere else.

Changing our world is not easy, but it is an essential task. We, too, need to keep our eyes on the prize and hold on.

Photo provided by Phil Haslanger.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. He recently received the 2015 Justice Award from the Wisconsin Governor's Council on Domestic Abuse. 

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