“Catch-22 — a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives.”
Consider the following hypothetical:
A man commits a horrific murder. A murder weapon undeniably proves his guilt. The weapon, however, is seized without a valid search warrant. The man moves to suppress the gun as evidence. With the gun, the state can convict. Without it, it cannot. The so-called “exclusionary rule” requires the presiding judge to suppress the evidence. The man walks free. The public is outraged. Not at the man who committed the murder. Not at the circumstance which warranted suppression. The public is outraged at the judge.
Judges find themselves in Catch-22s throughout their careers. If a judge refuses to follow the law, a higher court can remove that judge from the bench. However, if a judge does apply the law and angers constituents, that judge also can be removed from office either by election or recall.
What’s a judge to do?
When I was appointed to the Metropolitan Court bench in 2003, I took the following oath:
“I, Daniel Ramczyk, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the state of New Mexico and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office of Metropolitan Court Judge, Division XII, Bernalillo County.”
I must enforce laws passed by the New Mexico Legislature, follow appellate decisions handed down by higher courts, and comply with the rules and orders issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Going into this job, my eyes were wide open. I realized inevitably and probably more than once I was going to render a decision that would be unpopular to my constituents but was required by my oath. No wiggle room. No ifs, ands or buts. I must honor my oath. Period. End of story.
Any judge who reacts and responds to public sentiment when it violates his or her oath of office essentially is supporting a mobocracy form of government.
Mobocracy is defined as rule or government by the mob or the masses. A mobocracy attempts to intimidate legitimate government authority. Think Salem witch trials. The lynching of black Americans following the American Civil War. Think McCarthyism. Mobocracy is synonymous with chaos, destruction and loss of freedoms.
A mobocracy might be darkly satisfying to some people when they are members of the mob du jour. But what happens when any of them suddenly are the individual whom the mob is persecuting? They will be the first to insist upon the protection of their individual constitutional and legal rights. And who will they rely upon? The courts, of course.
Though a judge should not allow public sentiment to influence his or her legally mandated decisions, judges nevertheless should avoid adding fuel to the fire of a mobocracy.
I need to explain all my decisions clearly and cite those laws and rules upon which I rely. Then, if people are upset with my decision, they at least know to whom to petition for a change. Perhaps the Legislature needs to change a law. Maybe the Supreme Court needs to modify or strike a rule of procedure.
This is key. Shooting the messenger solves nothing and changes nothing.
I also need to avoid the appearance of being insensitive to the concerns of the people I serve. I have a responsibility to remain informed as to serious issues in my community and to find solutions within the parameters of my duties as a judge. Acting as though I am above and beyond of what people think will invite disrespect for the courts. I should never let this happen.
And finally, if I make a mistake, I have a duty to change my decision. If I make a bad decision, I should not dig my heels in and try to justify that which cannot be justified. I am human. When I am wrong, I must admit and fix it.
In the final analysis, serving as a judge is extremely challenging because the next decision I make may mean the end of my judicial career. That is the stark reality for people in my profession. But the focus of my job as a judge has never been about keeping my job as much as doing my job.
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.