Voting for Judicial Independence
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL
November 2, 2006
Nearly obscured by the struggle for control of Congress, there is another important battle in a handful of states over measures aimed at punishing judges for their official rulings and making them more captive to prevailing political winds. These measures all hide behind the superficially appealing but profoundly misleading banner of judicial accountability. And, taken together, they add up to an assault on a fair and independent judiciary.
In Colorado, voters will decide the fate of a far-reaching state constitutional amendment designed to kick a huge percentage of top sitting judges off the bench by setting a term limit of 10 years and applying the cap retroactively. A measure on the ballot in Oregon would create new geographic districts from which appellate judges could run, as a backdoor way to oust judges from the Portland area.
In Montana, conservative groups tried to force voters to confront Constitutional Initiative 98, an attempt to "rein in" judges by establishing new recall elections and making it easier to remove judges for specific rulings. Fortunately, the state’s high court ruled this misbegotten initiative invalid because of what it called "pervasive fraud" by out-of-state paid gatherers of signatures.
But the wackiest and potentially most far-reaching of the judge-bashing schemes is still on the ballot: South Dakota’s Jail 4 Judges initiative. The brainchild of Ronald Branson, an antigovernment activist from California operating at the political fringe, this reckless exercise seeks to keep judges in line by amending the state Constitution to eliminate judicial immunity from lawsuits by disgruntled plaintiffs and others. Immunity is a time-honored way of preserving an independent judiciary.
This radical measure would create a special grand jury with a rotating membership and loose rules in effect, a fourth branch of government. This new entity would be vested with the power to punish judges for their decisions, or, for that matter, school board members or any other local public official who had the bad luck to fit under the amendment’s broad definition of judicial power. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor correctly blasted the initiative as a bald attempt at judicial intimidation.
By rejecting Jail 4 Judges, South Dakota voters can send a message of support for a strong and independent judicial system without which democracy cannot function that will resound nationwide.
Copyright 2006, The New York Times Company
From: The New York Times [EDITORIAL] November 2, 2006. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.