On the Law: National politics highlight importance of independent judiciary


As we reflect upon the election process that unfolded last year and into this year, we take note of the role of the judiciary in the electoral process. Courts play a nonpartisan role in deciding highly contested, passionate, partisan disputes. The judicial branch of government is independent of the executive and the legislative branches of government. At the federal level, judges and justices serve lifetime appointments, insulated and protected from overt partisan influences. The public trust in the judiciary is critical to our functioning society.

We learned about this in grade school, but the lesson remains more important today than ever. In drafting the Constitution, our founding fathers carefully crafted a system made up of three equal and separate branches of government. Federalist Paper No. 78 is often cited as being most relevant to understanding the thought process behind establishing a judiciary that is completely independent from the other branches of government. Alexander Hamilton acknowledged that a representative government would bring competing interests claiming to represent the will of the people. The consensus concluded that federal judges would be appointed for a life term, so long as the judge exhibited “good behavior.” This remains true today. Federal bench appointments are for life, with little exception. The life appointment provides protection to the justice; there is no incentive for the justice to side with partisan influences as the justice does not need to apply for future appointments or run for office.

Hamilton articulated more reasons why the judiciary must be independent, buttressing the founders’ decision regarding the lifetime appointments. “Inflexible and uniform adherence to the rights of the Constitution, and of individuals, which we perceive to be indispensable in the courts of justice, can certainly not be expected from judges who hold their offices by a temporary commission.”

Although we do not have lifetime appointments in the New York Unified Court System, the New York Constitution defines specific term limits. For example, New York Supreme Court justices serve for a 14-year term, while County Court judges and Family Court judges serve for a term of 10 years. While many judge and justice positions within the state are appointed by the executive branch, many others are elected positions.

Despite having to be elected, New York judges and justices are prohibited from engaging in political activity, with very narrow exceptions. The first two sentences in the body of New York Rules of Judicial Conduct highlight the importance of an independent judiciary. The rules state that “an independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved.” Judicial candidates running for office must carefully navigate the rules of Judicial Conduct through the election process.

We have watched various justices being sworn in on the national level and the local level. At the federal level most recently, we watched Justice Amy Coney Barrett take her oath as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Much of the analysis surrounding the confirmation process and appointment focused on partisan issues and may have led some of the public to believe that the judiciary works hand-in-hand with the executive and legislature. That idea cannot be further from the truth.

While President Donald Trump made many appointments to the federal bench, the lawsuits that were filed to contest the election did not have an impact on the election results. The cases filed were rejected largely for a lack of evidence and many of the lawsuits were dismissed by justices who were appointed by Trump. These lawsuits and their dismissals demonstrate the fact that our judiciary functions independently.

Attorneys, clients and our society need judges whose loyalty is to federal and state constitutions and laws, not any one group’s private interests. We need judges to feel they can do their jobs without political recourse and free from retaliation. This is not to say that a judge’s decision will not be criticized. Decisions will be criticized, for that is the nature of litigation. Our court system is adversarial by design.

The success of the judiciary relies on public trust. Litigants and attorneys must be able to trust that this system is fair and impartial. The judiciary judges the actions of people and agencies, applies the law as written, and makes a decision. We all follow those decisions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out, as did many others before her, “the court has no troops at its command, doesn’t have the power of the purse, and yet time and again, when the courts say something, people accept it.” Public trust in the judiciary is essential.

Sure, there will be mistakes. Judges are human. And there are systems and procedures in place to address those human shortcomings. Barrett correctly stated, “It is your Constitution that establishes the rule of law and the judicial independence that is so central to it.”

The judiciary is independent because that is how the framers of the Constitution built it. It is independent because it must be independent to fully and effectively execute its work.

Susan Lettis is a lawyer in Oneonta.

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