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Commentator: Judicial Independence

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 Commentator

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-499122.mp3

Dallas, TX – , primary

Listen to this oath:

"I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all duties incumbent upon me as a United States Bankruptcy Judge under the Constitution and laws of the United States; and that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office of which I am about to enter. So help me God."

I watched an acquaintance repeat those words a few years ago at the federal courthouse in Fort Worth. The courtroom was packed with his friends and colleagues; most of the federal judges from the Northern District of Texas attended in their black robes. The atmosphere was solemn and joyous, like a wedding.

The ceremony took place only a couple months after the September 11 attacks, so I watched with a new appreciation for the institutions that hold our country together -- and with a fervent hope that they would survive any assaults a terrorist might attempt.

Four years later, I doubt that terrorists are the worst danger facing the judiciary. The erosion of judicial independence seems a greater threat. Judges who issue unpopular rulings are castigated as activist judges. Special interest groups on the right and left produce ads for or against Supreme Court nominees. In Texas and other states where judges are elected, candidates declare their stands on social issues to woo voters and campaign donors. These trends make judges more like other political animals and less like the patient, wise, even-handed guardians of justice they should be.

The public is partly to blame, as are lobbyists and politicians, because they're all deliberately ignoring this reality: truly impartial judges will sometimes make decisions that satisfy no one. A good judge has no loyalty except to the law.

So what should we want in our judges? Evidence of technical expertise, meaning they have shown that they know and can interpret the law. Common sense. Judicial temperament. Maturity. Professional ethics.

What shouldn't matter? Their political affiliation. Their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Where they went to law school, as long as it was a legitimate institution. How they, personally, feel about abortion or the death penalty or gay marriage. If they have the appropriate temperament, they know their own biases and do their best to set them when hearing cases.

Most Americans can't directly influence the selection of federal judges. But every Texan who's registered to vote can help shape the state's judiciary, starting with the March 7 primary. Listen to what candidates in these generally obscure races say. Do we want a judge who's tough on crime? Isn't that the prosecutor's job? Who donated to the candidate's campaign? Could the candidate do what the oath above requires, administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the rich and the poor? If not, they don't deserve your vote.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.