If you’re having trouble parsing the specifics of how so-called Stand-Your-Ground laws hold up legally, a Miami judge has come to the rescue with a ruling that references Harry Potter, making it easier to see why the law doesn’t work as written. Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch recently found that a new Stand-Your-Ground bill signed last month by Governor Rick Scott is unconstitutional. He backed that up, in part, by referring to a law journal article that explains the concept of burden of proof and separation of judicial powers through the lens of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Essentially, the law Gov. Scott passed made it easier to get away with murder by claiming self-defense, even in instances when the shooter was the one to pick a fight with the victim. That’s because, under the new law, prosecutors would have to prove the shooter definitively wasn’t defending themselves, rather than requiring the legal defense to prove the shooter’s innocence in front of a jury. It’s a beefed-up version of the same legislation that George Zimmerman’s legal team successfully invoked after he killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, giving shooters even more of a legal advantage over victims than Zimmerman had.
Judge Hirsch explained in his ruling that “as a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” referring to the bill passed by Gov. Scott. He then illustrates the concept of separation of powers trial by referencing said legal analysis of a trial that Harry Potter sits through in Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the popular series. In that fictional legal example, Potter is faced with a powerful political figure who uses his position in both the executive and judicial branches to deny Potter a fair trial. Colette Spanyol writes:
“Harry’s fundamental right to a fair hearing is seemingly irrelevant to Fudge through his consistent attempts to firstly discredit him … and secondly by making it as difficult as possible for Harry to raise an adequate defense….The trial of Harry Potter shows that through the lack of a separation of powers in the wizards’ constitutional system, there is a distinct disregard for the rules of natural justice, traditionally applied to judicial decisions. …The right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal is a basic principle of natural justice.”
There’s another layer to Spanyol’s Harry Potter review that is relevant to the Stand-Your-Ground laws. Spanyol writes, “J.K. Rowling’s series of books is about a wizard boy who is part of two parallel societies, the muggle [non-magical] society and the wizard society.” She notes that “throughout the wizard society there is an underlying assumption that wizard folk are superior,” and briefly describes how one character, Herminone, who is half-muggle, half-wizard, faces discrimination in the series. Especially in that legal context, it’s an observation that parallels our own society’s very real struggles with racial justice.
Indeed, it’s hard not to think of Trayvon Martin as you read through Spanyol’s review and consider it in terms of Hirschel’s ruling on a law which is inextricably tied in cultural memory and legal precedent to the death of a black teenager. That said, it’s possible that Hirschel’s ruling will not stand. It goes against not only the Governor but the NRA’s powerful pro-gun lobby that has thrown its considerable money and influence behind keeping Stand-Your-Ground laws on the books and strengthening them. That’s a combination of powers that even Potter fans, Black Lives Matter activists, and Judge Hirschel can’t ensure stay separated.