Saturday, October 3, 2015

PF Nov 2015 - Prioritizing Humanitarian Needs Over National Interests - Introduction

Resolved: In response to the current crisis, a government should prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees over its national interests.


It looks like the Public Forum debate community has returned to its "ripped from the headlines roots" and chosen a topic as fresh as the six o'clock news.  Unless you have been in a deep sleep for the last 60 days or so, you no doubt have seen the images and heard the stories poured out in all manner of media concerning the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing all kinds of insurrection, persecution and unrest in the Middle East.  It is indeed a humanitarian crisis. But let us not forget, it is a crisis that has been playing out for several years. Now that the waves of humanity have surged over the borders of Asia and spilled into the EU, suddenly the west has seemingly awaken to the sound of knocking on the door. It is a topic that cannot be ignored and I am glad to see we will debate it.

The Definition of the Topic

Let's start this analysis by examining the definitions and intent of the language used in the resolution. While this may seem unnecessary to some, it is helpful to clarify the topic in order to focus one's preparation.  Later it will serve as an aid to keep the debate on point and directed to the desired conclusion.

in response to
Generally a response is an answer or reaction prompted by a stimulus of some type.  The stimulus is some kind of input to the senses which stirs a reaction. This particular usage is intended to serve as a directed reaction or response to a specific stimulus. "In response to" points to a specific circumstance, event or question which expects a response.

the current crisis
This phrase identifies the thing to which our response is directed. A crisis can be loosely defined as a time of trouble or intense problems but that does not properly convey the proper meaning, in my opinion.  A crisis is a turning point or a tipping point between good or bad outcomes.  It conveys a sense of urgency where choices taken can make the difference between life or death.  But it can also be the point of decision between bad and worse.  The current crisis is the tipping point we are facing in the present time. We given the specifics in the next part of the resolution.

a government
Simply put, a government is the collection of people, laws and institutions which officially control a country. While there are many forms of government, we can think of it as the authority which establishes not only how the internal affairs of the country are managed but also how the country will respond to other countries and peoples who are not under the authority of the government in question.

should prioritize
Should in this context is a suggested course of action to be taken in deference to other courses of action.  In this phrase the action to take is to prioritize. Prioritize has two meanings. First it means to consider one thing more important than other things or it means to order (arrange) a group of things according to relative importance. In this resolution, the humanitarian needs of refugees should be considered more important than national interests.

humanitarian needs 
It not so easy to define humanitarian needs.  Obviously they are the needs of humans and so at the most basic level we can assume this means daily sustenance and perhaps shelter from the elements. At a higher level needs may include various kinds of security such as security from physical harm, food security or financial security arising from employment opportunities and on a still higher level needs may include those things necessary for self-actualization.  Sound familiar?  Click here to see the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. I don't think this needs to be a major point of contention although debaters may choose to make it so.  In my opinion, as needs become more complex, for example when considering the needs required for self actualization, they tend to be more and more individualized and less about those things common to humanity when we apply specific cases.

of refugees 
A refugee is defined by the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention :
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. 

national interests
National interests are those things the government of a country has decided are the pursuits of the nation. They are the things which the nation considers most important in fulfilling the ambition or goals of the nation.  National interests are not usually focused outward but rather inward toward acquiring the things needed to maintain power and achieve permanence. While the definition applied to national interests may be narrow or broad; specific or vague, it is clear that whatever definition is applied directly affects the country's foreign relations and how it responds to outside events and influences. 

The Interpretation of the Resolution

Based on the resolution requirement to prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees over national interests we can surmise this resolution is asking us to respond to the current crisis unfolding by the outflow of thousands upon thousands of individuals fleeing war and persecution throughout large portions of Syria, Iraq and other regions in the Middle East.  We have seen this resolution enacted in real life as some nations have attempted to close their borders in order to preserve their national interests while others have open their borders and granted temporary asylum. The responses of the nations in Europe and indeed all of the nations in the world are a living enactment of the resolution as each country decides how it will respond to the current crisis. And the diversity of responses reflects the vagueness inherent in defining what exactly are national interests, what are humanitarian needs, and what is the obligation of nations both legally and morally. The resolution gives us the obligation  and it is up to the Public Forum community to debate.

This could be a very interesting topic.

LD Nov/Dec 2015 - Jury Nullification - Introduction

Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, jury nullification ought to be used in the face of perceived injustice.

It's like deja vu all over again.
-Yogi Berra

Deja Vu

I remember. March/April 2010, "Resolved: In the United States, the principle of jury nullification is a just check on government." The wording of the past resolution and the current wording very strongly clues one in as to what is the purpose of jury nullification; an action a jury ought to take to limit perceived injustice by a government or an unjust law. It also, as one may possibly surmise is one action that a substantial number of judges in the U.S. oppose.  This debate promises to be a good one, just like it was a good debate in 2010. It's like deja vu all over again. Oh, and what really makes me happy about this deja vu? I still have most of my old evidence.

The Language

Let's begin this analysis by looking at the meanings of the words in the resolution. Doing so is necessary for several reasons.  First, it helps the debater to clarify with greater precision, what is the scope of the debate. It is important to understand details, such as who are the actors, what are the actions or truths being proposed and most importantly, for traditional Lincoln Douglas debate, what values are at stake.  Good interpretation promotes good preparedness which leans to meaningful and fruitful clash; the kind of clash of ideas which educates the participants. Second, it serves as a tool to detect potential abuses by the opponent who may be offering alternative interpretations or failing to defend a definition which is often just as abusive as a bad interpretation.

United States Criminal Justice System
I think for the purpose of this debate it is sufficient to treat this as an entire interpretable term rather than break it up into the separate terms of United States, and criminal justice system. Most who are reading this analysis have a common understanding of who or what is the United States and minor differences in interpretation should not be significant in this debate. However, to be clear, there are many criminal justice systems in the United States but that fact also should not impact this debate too much.

The online USLegal dictionary:
Criminal justice system refers to the collective institutions through which an accused offender passes until the accusations have been disposed of or the assessed punishment concluded. The criminal justice system consists of three main parts: (1) law enforcement (police, sheriffs, marshals); (2) adjudication (courts which include judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers); and (3) corrections (prison officials, probation officers, and parole officers). In a criminal justice system, these distinct agencies operate together under the rule of law and are the principal means of maintaining the rule of law within society.

In the United States we find these systems operating at all levels of government, local, state and federal and while there are differences in laws and procedures at each of these levels, there is a hierarchy such that local laws are limited by state laws and state laws are limited by federal laws.  At the top of the hierarchy is the U.S Constitution.

This particular resolution deals specifically with the judicial portion of the U.S. criminal justice system and more precisely, that subset of the judicial system which employs juries to decide the guilt or innocence of defendants.

jury nullification
A jury is group of people sworn to render a decision (a verdict or affirmation of truth) on a questions of fact.  In criminal cases being adjudicated in a court of law, the jury is sworn to listen to facts of the case and render a verdict answering whether of not the charges brought against a defendant are true. The framers of the U.S. Constitution established the right to a trial by jury as a means to check potential abuses by the justice system.

Legal Information Institute:
It was during the Seventeenth Century that the jury emerged as a safeguard for the criminally accused. Thus, in the Eighteenth Century, Blackstone could commemorate the institution as part of a “strong and two–fold barrier . . . between the liberties of the people and the prerogative of the crown” because “the truth of every accusation . . . . [must] be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbors indifferently chosen and superior to all suspicion.” The right was guaranteed in the constitutions of the original 13 States, was guaranteed in the body of the Constitution and in the Sixth Amendment, and the constitution of every State entering the Union thereafter in one form or another protected the right to jury trial in criminal cases. “Those who emigrated to this country from England brought with them this great privilege ‘as their birthright and inheritance, as a part of that admirable common law which had fenced around and interposed barriers on every side against the approaches of arbitrary power.”’ [ellipses in the original source]

I think most debaters will understand the jury serves to prevent arbitrary prosecution of persons accused of crimes. In other words, the legal standard applied requires the prosecution to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and in the U.S., the jury decision must be unanimous. However, as noted above, the jury's true purpose is to serve as a "strong and two-fold barrier" between individual liberties and the prerogative of the government. Thus, the jury can take decisions which are contrary to the evidence and "rule" on the law itself and this is the basis of jury nullification.

Legal Information Institute:
A jury's knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law either because the jury wants to send a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself, or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury's sense of justice, morality, or fairness. Jury nullification is a discretionary act, and is not a legally sanctioned function of the jury.  It is considered to be inconsistent with the jury's duty to return a verdict based solely on the law and the facts of the case.  The jury does not have a right to nulification [sic], and counsel is not permitted to present the concept of jury nullification to the jury.  However, jury verdicts of acquittal are unassailable even where the verdict is inconsistent with the weight of the evidence and instruction of the law.

In the U.S. criminal justice system, jury nullification is not a codified right. However, the Supreme Court has upheld jury nullification in specific cases.

ought to
Ought is derived from the root word "owe" which conveys the sense of duty of obligation. As I have said many times on these pages, while ought may be seen as equivalent to the word "should" and there is no real harm to interpreting it that way, ought does lend some validation to affirmative claims we should consider an obligatory, alternative point of view.

As a verb, "used" means to be utilized or employed as a means of accomplishing a purpose.

in the face of
Simply put, "in the face of" is an idiomatic expression meaning "when confronted with". In other words, it is a conscious recognition of something confrontational.  The expression is equivalent to saying "when threatened by" or "in opposition to".

To perceive, is a verb meaning to gain an awareness of something through the senses or to gain awareness of something through an mental evaluation of clues which may or may not be physically detected.  Therefore in the second meaning, a thing may be perceived by deduction or inference.

We understand injustice to mean "absence of justice".  Commonly in Lincoln Douglas debate it is claimed justice means "giving each her due", so we could interpret injustice as failure to give each her due.  It generally conveys a sense of unfairness or something that is not right.  In the context of a trial employing a jury, an injustice occurs if an innocent person is denied her rights or convicted of a crime for which she is not guilty.

The Stakes

At its most basic, we can interpret this resolution to mean, In the U.S. criminal justice system, juries ought to be allowed to nullify (ignore) the law if they sense it will result in punishment of someone unfairly. But this begs the question, if the jury can choose to ignore the law then what value is there in the law?  So what is at stake in the debate is the right of citizens to defend their freedoms against an abusive or over zealous government and its system of laws versus the supremacy of law as an over-arching principle for maintaining social order and obtaining justice.

Balko (2005);
The first case of jury nullification in British law came in the trial of William Mead and William Penn, the latter of whom would go on to found the province of Pennsylvania. In 1670, the two men were charged in England with unlawful assembly, a law aimed at preventing religions not recognized by the Crown from worshipping. Both almost certainly broke the law, and the judge demanded a guilty verdict. But the jury refused, on the grounds that the law itself was unjust. After repeated refusals, the judge ordered the jury imprisoned. England's highest court eventually ordered the jurors released, establishing into common law the independence and integrity of juries in criminal cases.

Research will uncover other examples of jury nullification is cases involving use of controlled substances, assisted suicide, fugitive slave laws, the Salem Witch Trials, and others.  (Look here to see common examples.) 

Balko, R, (2005), Justice Often Served By Jury Nullification, FoxNews, Aug 1m 2005. Accessed 10/2/2015 at:

Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School, online at Accessed 10/2/2015 at:

USLegal, Free Legal Dictionary, published online at, accessed 10/2/2015 at: