Here and There: Everywhere
Column by Paul Hein.
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Jurisdiction! What a wonderful word! It’s easy to see why it is used so often by lawyers and judges; its meanings allow such broad interpretation--and application.
For instance: my dictionary gives this as its first definition: “the power, right, or authority to interpret and apply the law.” The words “power,” “right,” “interpret,” and “apply” jump out. Who has that power? How did he/she/they get it? If the law permits of interpretation, isn’t it vague, and therefore null and void? Can it be applied, or not, by the one with the “power” and “right”? A right is a status granted by nature, not bestowed by some human dispensation. Are there people born with the right to interpret and apply the law? If someone has a right to apply the law, doesn’t that suggest a corresponding obligation to respect that right? Is it selective in application?
A second definition: “the authority of a sovereign power to govern or legislate.” Surely the power (that word again!) to govern is inherent in the concept of sovereignty. How does one become sovereign? Does becoming a public servant bestow sovereignty upon you? What a twist: a sovereign servant!
A third definition is particularly interesting: “the limits or territory within which authority may be exercised.” Now we have the involvement of geography. There is a line on the earth’s surface which divides Missouri from Nebraska. The line is invisible, but its presence is nonetheless unquestioned, and its importance undenied. If I, for example, step across that line, the “authority” and “power” which may be exercised over me by various strangers changes from a gang of Missourians to a gang of Nebraskans. What I could not do in Missouri may be allowed to me in Nebraska, or perhaps it’s the other way around: I can’t do in Nebraska what I could do in Missouri. The assorted strangers who have “jurisdiction” over me take very seriously these invisible lines, and go to great lengths to observe them. If I am standing with one foot in state A and the other in state B while shooting someone, (who collapses onto the very border!) there might arise a question of jurisdiction. It may be a question easily settled, but the very fact that it might arise means that geographical location is an important aspect of jurisdiction.
I recall an episode of “The Honeymooners” in which Ralph berates his long-suffering wife Alice, claiming, “I’m the boss; you’re nothing.” Alice replies: “Big deal: boss over nothing.” There’s no use having power, authority, sovereignty--i.e., jurisdiction, over nothing. Government, which via its various agencies claims jurisdiction over all of us within its territorial limits, piously affirms that it governs by consent of the governed. That assent is assumed, of course. The Rulers who give little significance to an unwritten contract attach life and death significance to an assumption of consent, and thereby, their jurisdiction over us. Just think: If you set out to walk across this vast country, every single step you took would place you within the imaginary boundaries of some group claiming dominion over you, based upon the geographic coincidence of your presence there. English author Hilaire Belloc wrote, in 1931, that the modern state “acts as though it had complete, unlimited, and eternal rights over the soul of man.” It makes the expression “land of the free” sound rather hollow. Free? Where? The following scenario comes to mind.
Ruler: You must obey the laws of Missouri, sir.
R: Because you are within the State of Missouri, and Missouri law applies.
P: In other words, if I’m within a given territory, I’m subject to its rules, etc.?
P: We are, at this moment, within the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Are you subject to the Archbishop?
R: We’re not talking about that.
P: We’re within the Missouri Synod. Do accept the authority of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod?
R: Flippancy is hardly appropriate here.
P: I’m standing. Do you see the circle around my feet?
R: What are you talking about? Of course not.
P: That circular line, enclosing my personal territory, is as real as the one which delineates “Missouri.”
R: You are trying my patience, sir!
P: Within that line I am sovereign, sir, not you! My zone of sovereignty is as real as yours, I assure you. I no more recognize your authority within my boundaries than you recognize that of Uganda, or Illinois, within yours. I, not you, have jurisdiction in my zone of sovereignty, and within that zone, I am subject to no one save my God, my family, and myself. Do you expect me to believe that you have greater jurisdiction over my person than I do?
R: I am going to hold you over for psychiatric examination.
In the final analysis, jurisdiction attaches itself to the one with the largest gun.