Ask Justice Smith | Open Hands Greetings – Tallahassee Reports

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 the fanciful to the probing.

Q. Judge Smith, why do people in England drive across the road? Clay (a fourth-grade student).

A. In the Middle Ages, most people rarely traveled any distance from their place of birth. Most of them lived, worked and died within a few miles of their birthplace.

Roads began as trails between villages and thieves often preyed on travelers when they reached isolated areas. Firearms did not yet exist and people defended themselves with knives or swords in hand-to-hand combat.

Most humans are right-handed, and people who walked these paths wanted to free up their dominant hands to ward off criminals coming from the opposite direction. They achieved this by walking on the left side of the roadway.

This tradition remained after horses, and then cars became the standard modes of transportation. Thus, in England, drivers always drive in the left lane towards the desired direction.

Many of our traditions were born out of security concerns. Over time, men usually greeted each other by shaking hands. Doing this assured both hosts of the other’s good intentions – that neither was about to stab the other! Likewise, people saluted by showing their hands palms open to show that 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 19th 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 didn’t have mirrors and it was harder to shave with straight blades if they couldn’t see their face. Also, before antibiotics, shaving was dangerous due to the risk of infection in cuts. 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 penalty is justified? Mattie (a high school student).

A. Death penalty cases are complex and require special training for judges and litigators. I took four days of training on the death penalty in May.

I did not sentence anyone to death. If I have to make this appeal, I will respect the law, assured that the courts of appeal will review my work.

Judges do not make public policy and they should not try to direct it. So it’s 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, find out, talk about it and vote.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a circuit judge, best-selling author and speaker. Send your questions to [email protected]

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