“Justice delayed is justice denied.” This is a legal maxim long held to be true. Who said it first is open to debate – William Gladstone is often given credit, and he did use those words during a debate in the English House of Commons in 1868, but there are many instances of its use before then, some variations of which are biblical and found in ancient Roman writings. Regardless of its origin, the sentiment has long been considered true.
Where the disagreement comes is not in the concept but in the definition of ‘delayed’. I remember being in fourth grade and getting an answer wrong on a science test. The question was, “Does the Earth turn fast or slow.” I said fast, but the ‘correct’ answer was slow. I was one of those annoying, precocious kids, and I remembering arguing with the teacher. I knew the Earth rotated about a thousand miles an hour, which seemed awfully fast to me. She said it was slow, because if it were fast we would notice the breeze as it spun.
In retrospect, it was a ridiculous question to put on a nine-year-old’s science test, but the point is this: speed is relative.
On TV and in the movies, we get a false sense of how quickly things move in the legal system. People are arrested, indicted, arraigned, and tried all within an hour-long episode. Crazy unrealistic. Even the time span of a television season – nine months – is unrealistic. ‘Normal’ is really more like a couple of years.
Why is that? The turtle symbolizes the slow, yet deliberate pace of justice and is built into the architecture of the building of the Supreme Court of the United States itself. No decision that affects the life of our citizens should be rushed. You can find lots of turtle knick-knacks in the gift shop of the Supreme Court of the United States. That’s the lofty reason.
The practical reason is volume. You simply have to wait your turn. All of this information is public record: you can see how many cases each judge has to deal with. Click here for the Superior Court case workload assessment and you can see how many thousands of cases a judge deals with per year. Divide that by the number of workdays, the number of hours in a day, and you’ll see why it takes so long to get to your turn. It’s just a long line. Why not hire more judges? That’s an expensive proposition. Not just because of the judges’ salary but because the judge needs support staff and a courtroom and security and training and all of that.
But, you say, my situation is an emergency. My lawyer has filed for an emergency hearing.
Asking for an emergency hearing is basically asking to cut in line. There are quite literally thousands of people who have been waiting in line for their turn, and you are saying that your situation is so dire that you need to step in front of them without having to wait your turn. Maybe this is true. And maybe it isn’t. Pretend you have a toddler with you and you are waiting on a crazy long line to pay for much needed groceries. You can’t just leave the groceries or your family won’t have food. Your toddler starts acting like Prince Louis – pulling faces, screaming, maybe hitting you with his little toddler hand. You want very much for all the single people buying their bottles of wine and fancy cheeses to let you buy your milk and chicken nuggets and Cheerios and get out of there so you can stop the madness. Can’t they see it’s an emergency?
Ah, yes. But it isn’t an emergency. Prince Louis is annoying, but annoying isn’t an emergency. It’s just annoying. Some people who aren’t you may even find it charming.
Let’s change the scenario. Let’s say it turns out that Prince Louis is screaming and fussing because he doesn’t feel well and all of a sudden his happy meal from earlier in the day becomes sad and he threatens to projectile vomit all over the store. No one around Louis wants to catch his stomach bug or get dirty from his illness. That is an emergency. That is more than annoying. Everyone will gladly make way and let you scoot in front so you can pay for your groceries and get Louis safely home away from everyone else.
‘Emergency’ is like fast or slow. It depends on your perspective. The court and judges, who regularly see literal life and death situations, who separate parents from their children on a permanent basis, who part people from millions of dollars, who sometimes condemn people to die by lethal injection, may not see your problem as an emergency deserving of cutting in line in front of the other people who have been patiently waiting, and all of whom think their own cases are emergencies.
Yes, your case is important. To you. But barring a real 9-1-1 emergency, we will answer your call in the order in which it was received.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.
 Check out this little guy! At the time of the writing, he’s on sale! 8″ Plush Turtle, Assorted – Supreme Court Historical Society – Gift Shop (supremecourtgifts.org)