I talk to students about what judges do and the rule of law. Sometimes, we talk about American history and their questions can range from whimsical to probing.
Q. Judge Smith, why do the people in England drive on the other side of the road. Clay (a fourth-grade student).
A. During the Middle Ages, most people rarely traveled any distance from where they were born. Most of them lived, worked, and died within a few miles of their birthplace.
Roadways started as footpaths between villages, and robbers often preyed on travelers when they reached isolated areas. Guns did not yet exist, and people defended themselves using knives or swords in hand-to-hand combat.
Most humans are right-handed, and the people who traveled these paths wanted to free up their dominant hands to fend off criminals approaching from the opposite direction. They accomplished this by walking on the lefthand side of the roadway.
This tradition stuck after horses, and then cars became the standard modes of travel. Thus, in England, drivers still travel in the left lane toward their desired direction.
Many of our traditions arose from safety concerns. Over time, men habitually greeted one another by shaking their right hands. Doing this assured both greeters of the other’s good intentions–that neither was about to knife the other! Likewise, people waved hello by showing open-palmed hands to demonstrate they were not holding weapons, ready to strike.
Q. Judge Smith, how come so many Civil War soldiers had beards, mustaches, and long sideburns? Tom (eighth-grade student).
A. Most nineteenth-century soldiers had facial hair, and few were clean-shaven. Back then, not shaving made sense for three reasons.
Many could not afford razor blades and shaving cream. Others lacked mirrors, and it was harder to shave with straight blades if they couldn’t see their faces. Also, before antibiotics, shaving was dangerous due to the risk that cuts would become infected. Many soldiers decided it was better to be hairy than infected or dead.
Q. Judge Smith, have you ever sentenced anyone to death, and do you think the death sentence is justified? Mattie (a high school senior).
A. Death penalty cases are complex and require special training for judges and trial lawyers. I completed four days of death penalty training in May.
I have not sentenced anyone to death. If I must make that call, I will follow the law, assured that the appellate courts will review my work.
Judges do not make public policy, and they should not try to steer it. Thus, it is not up to me to justify the death penalty. Look instead to the Florida legislature and Congress.
If you have strong feelings about the death penalty, inform yourself, speak up, and vote.
The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge, bestselling author, and public speaker. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.