Introduction

By Ridgway, Delissa A. | Judicature, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Ridgway, Delissa A., Judicature


What does "the rule of law" mean in today's multi-cultural society? Should immigrants be held to the same standards as everyone else, on the theory of "When in Rome ....?" Do the maxims that "all men are presumed to know the law" and that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" apply even to recent immigrants? The articles in this symposium issue of Judicature are guaranteed to challenge your thinking about some of the fundamental tenets underlying our system of justice.

The topic of cross-cultural justice has never been more timely, or more important. The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. And, as a nation, we have always taken great pride in our justice system. But, with immigration at an alltime record high, we are failing some of the most vulnerable in our society - and, all too often, we don't even realize it.

Cultural issues are arising more and more frequenüy in state and federal courts across the country, largely due to changing patterns of immigration. As of 2005, there were 35.2 million foreign-born people living in the U.S. - approximately 12 percent of the population, and the highest number of immigrants ever recorded in the country. Not only is the immigrant population at record levels, but those immigrants also are from more countries - and from a much more diverse group of countries-than ever before. Most immigrants today come from countries that have customs, traditions, mores, and laws that are very different from those of the U.S.

As the ratio of immigrants to native-born U.S. residents increases, immigrants are no longer necessarily quickly "immersed" into U.S. society. What this means for the justice system is that new immigrants (in general) will be less exposed to (and thus less familiar with) U.S. cultural norms and values, as well as U.S. laws. Geography matters too. Largely due to economic opportunity, immigrants are no longer clustered in cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Immigrants and their cultures are finding their way into state and federal courtrooms, in large cities and in small towns, literally "from sea to shining sea."

The types of cross-cultural cases are every bit as diverse as the parties - everything from personal injury cases, civil rights cases, and commercial litigation, to divorce and child support, allegations of child abuse or neglect, and criminal matters such as narcotics violations, kidnapping, assault, rape, and homicide. Some of the most fascinating cross-cultural issues are presented in the so-called "cultural defense" cases (in which immigrant defendants invoke the customs and traditions of their homelands to explain their actions), and in civil cases in which litigants proffer "cultural evidence" to support their claims. But culture also makes its way into the justice system in ways that are much more common, including language interpretation.

The first article in this symposium, by Professor Alison Dundes Renteln and Rene Valladares, is both an engaging primer on the relationship between culture and law, and an introduction to some of the defining cases in cross-cultural jurisprudence. Two of the world's preeminent scholars in the field, Renteln and Valladares make a compelling case that law is never "culture-neutral"; and using real-life "ripped-from-theheadlines" examples - they illustrate the many different subtle and not-sosubtle ways that culture manifests itself in the administration of justice.

Next, Dr. Linda Veazey - a leading researcher at the intersection of gender, religion, and culture in human rights and law - examines the tenets that "all men are presumed to know the law" and that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." Veazey explains that, while individuals raised in U.S. society naturally acquire an inherent familiarity with U.S. cultural norms and laws, it is intellectually dishonest to automatically attribute such knowledge to recent immigrants. Should the notion that "all men are presumed to know the law" be a rebuttable presumption where immigrants are concerned?

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