88 Marq. L. Rev. 365 (2004-2005)
The Lodestar of Personal Responsibility

handle is hein.journals/marqlr88 and id is 381 raw text is: ESSAY
THE LODESTAR OF PERSONAL
RESPONSIBILITY
BY MICHAEL B. BRENNAN*
You break the law, you go to jail.
This is an aphorism we learn at a young age. To lawyers, this phrase
raises all sorts of questions: Did you in fact break the law? What was the law
you broke? If you broke the law, then did you receive due process? Should
you go to jail or receive probation? If you are going to jail, for how long?
How long a jail term is fair for the crime committed? These are all important
concepts lawyers and law students discuss. Sometimes a deeper idea is
broached, and that is the topic of this Essay.
I. THE LODESTAR
A basic principle underlies much of not only law, but of life: A person
will be held to the consequences of his decisions; if not by himself, then by
society. We can call this concept the guiding principle or ideal, the lodestar if
you will, of personal responsibility.
At first glance, this is not controversial; it is even simple. It would seem
to underlie much of the school of thought we call ethics.   Reward is
apportioned according to this principle: You scored the winning touchdown;
therefore, you receive the accolades and the big money contract. Just so,
blame is apportioned according to this principle: You were the trigger-man in
the armed robbery gone bad; therefore, you receive a longer prison sentence
than the driver of the getaway car. The personal responsibility principle is
essential to assess liability for actions.
In my years as a judge, I have presided over more than 6000 cases. I have
sentenced thousands of people to dispositions ranging from a small fine to life
in prison without the possibility of parole.1 At each sentencing hearing, the
* B.A. University of Notre Dame, 1986; J.D. Northwestern University School of Law, 1989.
Judge Brennan sits on the Wisconsin Circuit Court in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A version of this essay was delivered as the Second Annual Chief Justice Warren E. Burger
Memorial Lecture on September 26, 2003 at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul,

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