Why Chris Christie Should Thank the Pope

Is Governor Chris Christie a convincing pathological lier or just a bad manager victimized by his staff in the climate of self-righteousness he created? 

The court of public opinion is divided.   Even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giulian now admits that he doesn’t know if Christie is telling the truth, putting the odds at “50/50.”

The question may ultimately be decided by a special investigations committee of the NJ State Legislature or by a judge and jury if it goes that far.  In either case, Governor Christie is a lucky man and he can thank the Pope.

Up until the 13th Century, trial by ordeal was a common method for deciding whether a person was lying or telling the truth.  If the judge could not decide whether a person was telling the truth, he could require trial by ordeal.

In medieval England the accused had to plunge his hand into a pot of boiling water to retrieve a stone or carry a one pound piece of red hot metal for nine feet.  The hands were then bandaged for three days and then inspected by priests to see if God has healed the blistering.  If so, the accused was deemed to be telling the truth.

In some parts of Europe, the ordeal could be a bit more definitive.  One ordeal required the accused to be bound with heavy weights and thrown into a river.  If he floated he was guilty and put to death.  If he sank he was innocent but died anyway. 

If Gov. Christie were living in medieval times and Rudy Giuliani were the judge, the Governor would be certain to face one of these tests. 

The basic premise underlying all of the rituals was that God would intervene to protect or save the innocent. However, the papacy was the one to end the practice of trial by ordeal. In 1215, Pope Innocent III prohibited priests from taking part in trials by ordeal, and the practice ultimately died out altogether.

While the trial by ordeal seems barbaric today, modern scholars have argued that it may have actually been a reliable means of rationing out justice, largely because the public bought into it. In most cases, only the innocent were willing to go through with the ordeal. Meanwhile, the guilty opted to avoid it by confessing, settling the dispute, or fleeing justice.

In this case, Governor Christie might prefer trial by ordeal instead of listening to the televised talking heads endlessly debating the scandal and declaring his political demise, or reading Tom Moran’s merciless columns in the Star Ledger.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.


Why Chris Christie Should Thank the Pope