Monday, June 06, 2005


"First thing we do, let's kill all the judges." That is what some politicians want to do to the judiciary. Proposed ways to dispatch the black robed miscreants include: impeach them, abolish their office through legislation, or simply treat them as a trauma center and withhold funding. The threats are anything but parochial. They affect not just the judicial branch, but all citizens.
These threats were ostensibly engendered over dissatisfaction with “activist” judicial rulings, and in particular, the heart wrenching decision in the Terri Shiavo case. All the courts involved in that tragic case were accused of judicial arrogance for a refusal to “follow the law.” But that is precisely what those courts did. For all we know the Florida trial judge who first ordered Ms. Shiavo’s feeding tube removed may have wished to keep Terri Schiavo alive no matter what her condition. But he was compelled to reach his decision on the evidence and the law. Indeed, if the trial judge thought his personal beliefs would have hampered his ability to objectively view the evidence, he would have been required to recuse himself. It was the consequence of his following the law that produced a result that critics found so unacceptable.
Ironically these critics were in effect excoriating the trial and appellate judges for not being “activists.” They wished for a ruling that would have kept Terri Schiavo alive without regard for her wishes or the law. This in turn prompted Congress to enact a "Terri Schiavo law" giving federal courts the opportunity to hear once again a state law matter that had been concluded and this time decide the case correctly. The legislative branch displayed contempt for the separation of powers principle they accused the courts of ignoring. When the federal courts refused to again hear the case, some congressional leaders spoke of a judiciary out of control and threatened to metaphorically “kill all the judges,” or at least those whose decisions they disliked.
The original quote, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” I have often seen framed in lawyers’ offices. Taken out of context the words have been misinterpreted as reflecting a pervasive public mood about pesky lawyers creating havoc with baseless lawsuits. Far from it. They are taken from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part II. Jack Cade, a revolutionary seeks, to overthrow the government and depose the King. While he is inciting a mob to overthrow the government, one of the ordinary citizens, Dick, a butcher, yells the famous quote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Far from denigrating lawyers, the quote speaks to the value, significance and importance of a government’s judicial system. It is the hallmark of civilization. Without it, we have anarchy and chaos. How to undermine the government and destroy it? “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
By upsetting the balance between the separate branches of government, Congress seeks to punish a judiciary for deciding cases the “wrong way.” The irony of this crude attempt to usurp the separation of powers is obvious. Yet, several legislators concerned about the Shiavo case were motivated by genuinely felt moral principles, and not just crass political motives. But their dissatisfaction was with the law that the judge was bound to uphold. The trial judge could have ruled the other way if he disbelieved the testimony of Michael Shiavo concerning his wife's wishes, or if he had found unpersuasive the expert testimony concerning her mental condition. And if he had made such findings, he would have been bound to rule the other way.
It is not surprising that numerous courts in both the state and federal system refused to hear the matter. Whatever certain members of Congress felt about the Shiavo decision, federal courts determined that this was a state matter that had been concluded. And under both state and federal law, the standards of appellate review mandate deference to the trial court’s findings. It is rare that trial court decisions are reversed because of insufficient evidence. It is seldom possible to make informed decisions about substantial evidence on a transcript.
That is not to say that we do not nor cannot make valid assessments from the written page. We can draw a multitude of impressions about Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina. We can try to do the same with the unadorned and seemingly prosaic testimony of a witness in a marital dissolution action recorded in a transcript. The words come to us free from the gloss and refined literary filter of Flaubert or Tolstoy, but our insight is limited. It is the trial judge, observing the witness respond to questions under direct and cross examination who is in the best position to make an informed judgment on credibility. The judge then must render a judgment in accordance with the applicable substantive and procedural law, the rules governing evidence, and burdens of proof. The judiciary has no free reign; it operates under constraints.
Judges, like anyone else in public service are and should be subject to legitimate criticism. Law professors make their living more often “burying” than praising judicial decisions. Even judges judge judges. Just look through the appellate reports. But the current debate on judicial philosophy has caused more confusion than enlightenment. The Shiavo case is an example of how radically different points of view interpret “activism” in radically different ways.
One can understand the desire of the appointing authority, be it the president of the United States, or a governor, to hope if not expect their judicial appointees to rule in a manner consistent with their own judicial philosophy. However subtlty or directly these expectations may be expressed to the prospective nominee, predictability is seldom attainable. Exhaustive questionnaires, probing interviews, and recommendations from "kitchen" cabinets offer some insight, but not certainty as to how a judge will rule in a particular case. However disturbing this may be to a president or governor, that’s how it is and must be with an independent judiciary as a co-equal branch of government.
California understands the importance of a truly independent judiciary. To assure that merit, apart from "political" considerations figure prominently in the selection process, we have an independent Judicial Nominees Evaluation committee (JNE). Created by the legislature in 1979, the JNE commission is an agency of the State Bar created to evaluate candidates for judicial nomination or appointment by the Governor. The Commission is presently composed of 34 members reflecting the rich diversity of our state. Thirty members come from various segments of the legal community and four are public members. They are all selected by the State Bar Board of Governors. The non partisan neutral commission complements the governor's investigative process. It receives and evaluates confidential questionnaires sent out to members of the legal community relative to a nominee's qualifications. Competence, integrity, work ethic, and temperament are areas the Commission explores in depth. The Commission's thorough evaluation may expose factors that make a candidate unsuitable for judicial office. This information, in turn, is beneficial to the appointing authority and to the public.
It is the judiciary from which we expect rigorous analysis, unwavering integrity, and genuine independence. The JNE Commission helps ensure that judges of this caliber are appointed to the bench. But to be effective the Commission must enjoy the same degree of independence that is so vital to a fair and impartial judiciary.
At this critical time when the judiciary is under attack a disturbing proposal has been advanced that threatens the vitality and function of the JNE Commission. The proposal seeks to have the Governor's Judicial Appointments Secretary attend the plenary meetings of the JNE Commission. I can’t imagine a better way to stifle a free and spirited exchange of views. It would be like having a party to litigation before an appellate court attend the conference where the justices discuss the merits of the case. The proposal is simply another way of saying, "First thing we do, let's kill the JNE Commission."
The Board of Governors appointed an ad hoc committee composed of past and current JNE Commissioners to study this proposal. Its report issued in February of this year concludes, "One of the principal reasons JNE has been able to perform its stated and statutory mission satisfactorily is that it has been independent of the political process. The presence of a representative of the Governor's Office during JNE deliberations of judicial candidates would be destructive of that independence, would be counterproductive to JNE'S ability to provide fair, candid, straightforward and unbiased evaluations to the Governor's Office, and would irreparably cripple JNE'S ability to perform its mission. The JNE Commission is an enormously valuable independent resource, and should remain so. It does not make the judicial appointments, nor does it want to. It is an important tool in helping achieve excellence in the judiciary of the State of California."
I concur. The workings of the JNE Commission illustrate how one branch of government has a check but not authority over another branch. This is beneficial to our institutions and the public they serve. We should direct our energies to respecting and preserving the balance of power between our separate branches of government instead of destabilizing that balance. Steps to kill the JNE Commission or the judiciary puts our democracy at risk.
I therefore suggest the following: "First thing we do. Let's keep alive an independent judiciary." Our democracy depends on it.