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Political attacks on courts and judges threaten our democracy

Our government is “a government of laws, and not of men.”

– John Adams, Founding Father

America’s greatest commitment is to the rule of law, due process and equal access to justice. The rule of law is the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to laws that are fairly applied and fairly enforced. For a nation based on the rule of law, nothing is more important than the independence, impartiality and integrity of our court system. A fair and impartial judiciary is a bedrock principle of the rule of law.

New Mexican judges are called upon every day to hear disputes, listen to the parties involved and strive to reach a fair and equitable result based upon the facts presented and the law as applied. Courts are required to decide cases regardless of politics or external pressures, and to ensure that the other branches do not overstep their authority or encroach on individual rights. The judiciary serves as an independent check on the political branches, not a tool of the legislative or executive branch.

In explaining the need for an independent judiciary, founding father Alexander Hamilton noted the courts “were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and their legislature” in order to ensure the people’s representatives acted only within the authority given to Congress under the Constitution.

This country has recently seen direct threats to the fairness and impartiality of America’s courts by some groups in an effort to exercise greater control over the courts based on partisan politics. Such polarization undermines our system of governmental checks and balances.

Legislators in at least 14 states are considering bills that would diminish the role or independence of the courts. Such legislation weakens the checks and balances that are the very foundation of our democratic system.

A recent poll conducted by the National Judicial College indicated 77 percent of the judges surveyed indicated they no longer feel the judiciary is a co-equal branch of government. Legislation that gives the legislature the power to override judicial decisions, decide the constitutionality of laws or that exert financial and political pressure on the courts to change case outcomes threaten judicial independence.

Judges and courts exist to protect our liberties and our most fundamental rights. The Bill of Rights was passed because freedom of religion, speech, equal treatment and due process of law were deemed so important that, barring a constitutional amendment, not even a majority should be allowed to change these fundamental rights.

Most judges chose the bench based upon a strong respect and commitment to equal justice under the law. At the Second Judicial District Court, we hear cases that profoundly impact people’s lives in every way – matters involving family, crime, children, employment, housing and human rights – and we take our judicial oath seriously. Each judge is called upon to set aside personal preferences, politics and pressures and decide these cases by applying the rule of law. Decisions made in this way protect the core values of our country.

The first full week of March has been designated by the American Bar Association as National Judicial Outreach Week dedicated to “Preserving the Rule of Law.” Courts play a vital role in our democracy and the preservation of our liberty. Parochial, partisan and political attacks on the courts and on judges threaten our democracy and undermine the integrity and impartiality of our judiciary. We must protect the independence of our courts to ensure our laws apply equally to everyone and to preserve the principle that no one is above the law. Preserving the rule of law in every courtroom every day ensures the rule of law will protect the liberty of all Americans.