Ballot Initiatives Threatened Independence of Courts
RALPH J. CAPPY
November 16, 2006
While public attention was focused on the power shift in Washington in last week's election, something else was going on at polling places around the country that went almost unnoticed.
Voters in several states considered constitutional amendments that could have weakened, politicized and, in one case, outright emasculated their state courts.
I am grateful to say that these ballot initiatives failed. But the threat to democracy that they represent remains very much alive.
A growing pattern of attacks on the courts across the nation has gained tremendous momentum in recent years, and it is important for all citizens to be aware of it.
In the name of making courts more ''accountable,'' certain groups and individuals, driven by special interests and rigid philosophies, have launched campaigns in many states to smear and unseat individual judges or entire courts. These critics insist that their opinions, and theirs alone, are correct, and courts should recognize no other.
There have been impeachment drives, recall movements and ugly political campaigns along with a growing pattern of violence against judges. Any judge who issues an unpopular but legally-sound ruling can become a target.
This year, far more than ever before, we saw ballot proposals to limit the powers of the courts, to strip jurisdiction from the courts and to intimidate judges.
In South Dakota, a ballot proposal would have provided for a citizens' grand jury with powers to authorize lawsuits against judges and even indict judges for their rulings.
In Oregon, a ballot proposal would have wiped out statewide elections for appellate judges in favor of electing them from politically carved judicial districts. Had it passed, most or all of the state's appellate judges would have been swept from office.
In Colorado, a proposal would have imposed 10-year term limits on judges. That, too, was aimed at getting rid of incumbent judges.
In all the media coverage of the election, there was little mention of these ballot proposals. In my view, much more attention should have been given to them. Judges across the nation were watching these elections with grave concern.
The voters in South Dakota, Oregon and Colorado wisely recognized the dangers in the proposals and rejected them. They voted to protect their courts, as they should. They clearly wanted their courts to remain accountable but to their constitutions and the rule of law, not to special interests. In those elections, the voters were well-informed and democracy worked.
It is vitally important that the courts everywhere in America remain accountable, yet strong and independent, as they have for more than 200 years, and that judges remain free to make decisions based on the rule of law, and that alone, uninfluenced by any form of outside pressure.
Our courts in Pennsylvania are open and accessible to citizens of every race, faith, nationality and socio-economic background. They exist to protect our rights and our freedom. They should never be taken for granted.
Copyright 2006, The Morning Call
Ralph J. Cappy is Chief Justice, Pennsylvania Supreme Court. From: The Morning Call Online, November 16, 2006, http://www.mcall.com/news/opinion/anotherview/all-cappy11-16nov16,0,2030720.story?coll=all-newsopinionanotherview-hed, accessed November 17, 2006. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.