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Jerome Christenson: What to do about the permanent record

September 19, 2018
Jerome Christenson

Maybe there really is such a thing as a permanent high school record.

Yeah, we all remember that one ... the ominous manila folder locked in the principal’s bottom desk drawer, the repository of all manner of adolescent misdeeds that, if not carefully curated would resurface to haunt and embarrass throughout your adult life.

Yeah, there is such a thing ... as Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Senate and the whole country have learned.

And it doesn’t just dwell in a dusty desk drawer.

Out of the blue, accusations of a drunken adolescent evening have imperiled the career of a Supreme Court nominee who was presented to the country as a squeaky-clean jurist, an exemplar of probity and the embodiment of “the truth and nothing but the truth.”

It’s a reputation hard to square with an accusation of attempted rape.

An accusation more than three decades old.

An accusation made against a 17-year-old boy, now 53 and under consideration for a seat on the nation’s highest court.

The permanent record of an alleged adolescent misdeed come back to haunt him.

For those of us — and by that I mean dang near all of us — who have one or two things buried in our past that we’d rather never see the light of day, the judge’s dilemma can’t but strike a resonant chord. What happened in high school should stay in high school. We’re not the same bungling be-zitted beings struggling, baffled and hormone-besotted, to transition from child to adult in a culture changing as abruptly as ourselves. We weren’t all teen angels, so, after all these years, lock that desk drawer and throw away the key. The past has passed. Fair is fair.

Except it isn’t. For many of us, it hasn’t.

For Christine Blasey Ford, that night has never quite ended. For the children preyed upon by pedophile priests decades ago, that past has not passed away. And for many, many of our contemporaries who, for lack of luck, judgment or whatever, got caught — and we didn’t — those teenage misdeeds still cloud their lives and reputations.

Had Christine Blasey Ford faced Brett Kavanaugh in a court of law three decades ago, might he now be a registered sex offender rather than a federal judge and Supreme Court nominee?

And had our personal scales tipped slightly in a different direction, how many of us would be in a very different situation as well?

For many years, part of my job involved following kids — many of whom had done truly terrible things — as they made their way through the criminal justice system. This being a small town, some of them I knew, personally or by reputation. Some had gone to school with my kids, been to my house, ate at my table. I knew their lives were not encapsulated in the police reports, their value in court documents, their humanity measured by their sentences.

Nonetheless, their very public, very permanent court records have left indelible imprints on their lives, in some cases defined their lives.

As for the victims of their actions and for community that was disrupted and harmed, it can be argued that justice was and is served. A price was paid, and if the payment is ongoing, there may be justice in that as well.

But the question arises: If that is justice for those who are caught quickly, what is justice for those whose day of atonement is long belated? Is it possible we take too much from the one and give too wide a latitude to the other?

If life is long, is there a statute of limitations on justice? And if life is long, when do the passing years give evidence of redemption? If life is long, what do we do with that permanent record?

Had our personal scales tipped slightly in a different direction, how many of us would be in a very different situation as well?

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