Court-Ordered Apology

Of what value is a judge-ordered apology? A Michigan court ordered a state official last week to apologize to Flint residents for her role in perpetuating the Flint water crisis. Will it help the official? Will it help Flint residents feel better?

There may be some value to the “offender,” who is forced to face the possibility of bearing some responsibility for the offense. But if the offender had any sense of remorse, wouldn’t the offender have expressed that before being compelled to do so?

It seems like it would have no value to the “victim.” An apology that is in any sense coerced usually rings hollow. The very fact that it is compelled negates the sincerity essential to an effective apology. Think about the apologies our moms forced our siblings to make to us; did those apologies reconcile us to our offending sibling? Quite the opposite—they made us feel vindicated, like we won and they lost.

Indeed, it seems like a court-ordered apology is simply another form of punishment for the offender, while some vindication for the victim. For these and other reasons, courts rarely “force” an offender to apologize – apology is rarely a component of a sentence.

What if the sentence had encouraged, rather than required, an apology? “…and if the defendant feels so moved, the defendant might consider apologizing in some fashion to the people she believes she may have harmed…” An apology under these circumstances might still be suspect, if the defendant sees this as quid pro quo, but it would allow an opportunity for some genuine repentance that is foreclosed by a compulsory apology.