In a word? Impartiality.
The essence of the judicial branch is to provide an impartial forum to parties embroiled in a dispute. Judges resolve disputes, both criminal and civil, by determining the truth and then applying the law. This process guarantees justice for all.
Politics, however, is about amassing power and influence through promises and engaging in quid pro quo. The leaders of our executive and legislative branches obtain power directly through this Machiavellian process. Politics, by its nature, is not designed to ensure justice and equality for everyone. Indeed, to the victor goes the spoils.
So it is indeed refreshing, not to mention vital, to have a major branch of government that serves everyone from the standpoint of truth and justice.
Unfortunately, there is a public perception in our country today that the judicial branch is becoming just as political as the legislative and executive branches. Today, people seem to believe that judges’ decisions are based upon political party affiliation and beliefs. Also, some people have opined that judicial campaigns force judges to “sell” their impartiality.
I disagree with both propositions.
My own experience on the bench has convinced me that a judge’s political beliefs prior to becoming a judge do not ultimately influence his or her legal decisions. Call me naïve, but I believe judges who take the oath of office understand the seriousness and gravity of the oath – and honor it. Upholding the Constitution and the laws of the land takes priority over previously held political beliefs. Judges bend over backward to enter fair and impartial decisions.
Insofar as political campaign donations are concerned, judges are not allowed to accept contributions directly. Instead, judicial candidates must appoint treasurers, who create a firewall between the judges and the donors. Ideally, the identities of the donors are never known to the judicial candidate. And if there ever is an appearance of impropriety, a judge must recuse himself from a case. If the parties have a problem with a judge, they, too, may motion for an excusal.
Finally, everything we judges do is in public and on the record. Every single decision we make must be supported by facts and law and must be recorded. Corruption, bias and political prejudice cannot survive the level of public scrutiny which judges face every day.
And, yet, the perception persists that politics have permeated and are corrupting the judicial branch of government. I believe the perception stems, in part, from the growing cynicism the average American has of anything government-related. And part of the perception is related to the never-ending saturation of sensationalistic “news” spewed forth to the public through the internet. Everyone and everything, including judges, are under attack. As they say in the news business, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Reasons for the perception notwithstanding, I believe that judges can take certain steps to avoid the perception of themselves as politicians. Personally, I never place bumper stickers of any kind on my car, I never place political signs in my yards, and I never discuss politics with people. I never support or oppose any political candidate or elected official. I do not praise, criticize or otherwise comment on a political candidate or elected official. I do not participate in, contribute to or attend political events.
Most importantly, I always explain the reasons for my decisions at length in the courtroom.
Former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once stated that “the legitimacy of the judicial branch rests entirely on its promise to be fair and impartial.”
Think about it. The executive branch of government has the power of the military. The legislative branch has the power of the purse strings. And the judicial branch? All it has to back up its decisions is its integrity. If judges lose the appearance of integrity, then they will lose the legitimacy of their decisions and will be viewed as just politicians in black robes. And then our third branch of government will become powerless.
As someone who has given his all to supporting the integrity of the bench, I have to believe that I am a typical judge and that our judicial branch of government is healthy and will endure.
I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and an awesome 2019.
Judge Daniel E. 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.