Back when a court oath meant something

Through the course of investigation into illegal steroid use in baseball, players and trainers will be forced into court to testify next month. The biggest name talked about since the infamous Mitchell Report has been seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens.

Clemens, who denies ever using steroids, was originally scheduled to testify Jan. 16. Days before, ESPN analysts pointed out that if Clemens and his former trainer, Brian McNamee, stuck to their stories – Clemens saying he never touched steroids, and McNamee saying he personally injected Clemens with them – then one of them would be lying under oath.

An oath in court is the act of swearing to tell “the whole truth.” But I don’t think anyone is listening to that anymore.

Back when George Washington was being sworn into presidency, he placed his hand on the Bible and said, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Great. If this oath worked for George Washington in 1789, then the whole idea of oaths must be flawless.

Or not.

When a person takes the stand, he or she is asked by the court clerk, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” These days there is still a Bible being held in front of the person being questioned.

“The establishment clause [of the First Amendment] protects against government sponsorship of religion in general,” said Laura Little, a professor in Temple’s Beasley School of Law. “[But] courts say that the reference to God is simply cultural and is not meant to promote religion.”

But Rick Greenstein, also a professor in the law school, added a statement that contradicts the idea that court hearings have nothing to do with religion:

“Even in the early part of the 20th century, a number of states still forbade atheists from testifying in court,” he said.

“Non-believers were apparently not thought to be sufficiently moral to be credible,” Greenstein added. “A believer who swears before God to tell the truth will be motivated to be truthful out of fear of divine punishment.”

Courts have started to allow people of other religions to swear over other holy books, and some can just “affirm” to telling the truth rather than placing his or her hand on the Bible, but I don’t see anything stopping lies daily within courtrooms.

“I suspect that the more contemporary rationale is that the solemnity of oath-taking will impress upon the witness the importance of telling the truth, and, perhaps, reinforce his or her liability to legal punishment for perjury if the testimony is deliberately false,” Greenstein said.

It would just be more effective for a judge to point to one of the affiant’s family members and ask, “Do you swear on your mother/father/sister/brother/grandmother that you are telling the truth?”

Inarguably, more people care about their kin than the number that care about the Bible.

So, once Clemens and McNamee end up in court Feb. 13, and they both stick to their stories, one will be committing perjury.

What will that mean?

Absolutely nothing. The court won’t know a thing.

Jeff Appelblatt can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.