A Life's Work
Justine Wise Polier, 1903 - 1987
"We have lost a sense of personal responsibility and sensitivity to people, and our faith that we can do more for people who need help if we care. In other words, I don't believe we can have justice without caring, or caring without justice. These are inseparable aspects of life and work for children as they are for adults."
Polier's ideal of justice was infused with empathy. She always acted out of her conviction that "I might have committed every crime or offense charged against the children brought before me. That I had not was largely a matter of luck, privilege, and always feeling loved." Observers in her court noted the deep respect and individual attention with which she treated children and families. She never wore her heavy judicial robes, because she found, "There is nothing about a black robe that encourages a child to talk to me like a human being."
At the same time, Polier insisted compassion was worthless unless accompanied by a commitment to justice. She was enraged by "so-called well- intentioned people...[who] felt they had the right to bestow their charity...on those whom they chose to help, without any regard to those whom they excluded." Although she had never planned to serve more than a few years in the Family Court, Polier stayed for almost four decades, because "As case after case came up, I saw the vast chasms between our rhetoric of freedom, equality and charity, and what we were doing to, or not doing for, poor people, especially children." She spent a lifetime working towards a day when "the welfare of others" might come to be recognized "not as a dirty word, but as a central concern for all."
- "we have lost a sense of personal responsibility..." quote from Polier, Oral History, Columbia University, 11.
- "I might have committed every crime..." quote from Polier, Oral History, Columbia University, 4-5.
- For descriptions of Polier in court see Mill's Life article and also observations from Teacher's College students after a field trip to Polier's court, 1943, Polier Papers, box 3, folder 28.
- "There is nothing about a black robe..." quote from Mills 58.
- "so-called well-intentioned people..." and "As case after case came up..." quotes from Polier, Oral History, Columbia University, 4-5.
- "the welfare of others..." quote from Polier, "In Defense of Human Rights," 10.