I recently read a syndicated columnist (Diane Dimond, July 21 Albuquerque Journal) who opined that America’s court system suffers from a condition called “green justice.” She claimed that wealthy and powerful people receive preferential treatment over regular litigants. She cited a handful of well-publicized court cases involving so-called wealthy and/or famous people in which juries refused to convict or in which judges rendered lenient sentences. She suggested that wealthy people essentially can buy better legal results by hiring high-priced attorneys. She also claimed that judges inexplicably tend to be much more deferential in their treatment of this perceived elite class.
Perhaps I am naive. But I honestly disagree with the columnist’s thesis. Justice in America cannot be bought. Our judicial branch has built-in safeguards that prevent the corruption of our nation’s courts and its processes.
Let’s scrutinize the arguments in support of the accusation of “green justice.”
Insofar as juries acquitting or becoming deadlocked in cases involving famous and/or wealthy people, this is not unusual. This happens with regular citizens, too. It proves nothing unusual except that the state could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt to the unanimous conclusion of a jury.
Regarding the claim wealthy people can afford to hire “better” lawyers and thus obtain better results, this argument is spurious.
The truth is the truth is the truth. And no matter how much a lawyer may charge a client, he or she cannot manipulate or fabricate the truth. Truth is constant and undeniable.
Consider this, too. Some of the best lawyering I have observed in criminal cases has been by public defenders. Public defenders, of course, do not charge their clients. So much for the misconception that money buys better verdicts.
My research indicates most Americans actually do not believe that high-priced attorneys, in and of themselves, automatically guarantee better legal results. Rather, there is a perception that these attorneys have more time to utilize all of the legal tools and options available in the justice system.
All attorneys, however, have equal opportunity to utilize all legal options for their clients. If a court forced an unprepared attorney to proceed to trial, the judgement could be appealed and reversed on grounds of “ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Finally, do judges really inexplicably treat wealthy and/or famous litigants differently than the average citizen?
No. Judges take an oath to uphold the laws and Constitution, regardless of socioeconomic status. Moreover, judges may not render discriminatory justice without serious consequences, including losing their jobs.
Judges are required to make all decisions in public and on the record. Nothing is done in secrecy or dead of night. Corruption can exist only in the dark, and judges do not operate behind closed doors or in the shadows. Any pattern of disparity in treatment by a judge based upon socioeconomic status would stand out like a sore thumb. And voters would not tolerate it.
A judge’s decisions also must be supported by the evidence or the judge may be overturned on appeal. Arbitrary and capricious decisions are reversed by higher courts.
Also, with the advent of the internet, if a judge makes a decision or renders a sentence that clearly is unfair or influenced by factors other than truth and justice, the judge could very well be removed from office in the next election. Internet recall campaigns have proven successful in ousting judges.
Finally, if someone believes a judge’s decisions are the result of a pattern of green justice, that person may report the judge to the state’s judicial standards commission for disciplinary action. Again, removal might be the end result.
Although the more cynical factions in our society will never believe justice is equally accessible to all, that really is the case in America. We have built an amazing system of justice, and though honest mistakes are made from time to time, it is still the best system in the world.
Our American justice system is not for sale.
Judge Daniel Ramczyk is a judge of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.