Educating Citizens to Protect Equal Justice for All
A Project of the League of Women Voters Education Fund
This article was written by Nancy Connors, Project Manager, LWV EF national office. We are reprinting it with her permission.
On any Tuesday morning, more than 25,000 state court judges throughout the country don their black robes, walk through a door, take a seat at the front of a room and become a breathing symbol of our democratic government operating under the rule of law. The American Bar Association (ABA) asked in a 2000 publication the following question:
"How do we identify individuals with the requisite qualifications to assure us that they will perform the judicial task with distinction and, given the reality that no one becomes a judge without being touched by the political brush, how do we assure that only those with the requisite qualities become judges?"
In short, how do we, the citizens of our communities, get the best of the best to serve on the bench? Each state has responded by creating its own method for achieving this goal. It is for this reason that since 2001 the League of Women Voters Education Fund has been working with state and local leagues across the country to promote and heighten the understanding of the local judicial system.
People come to the courts requesting a decision that will settle a dispute. Their expectation is that the judge will give equal weight to the arguments brought by each side and administer a decision based on the rule of law. Confidence in our democracy demands that the trial be fair and that the judge's decision is not influenced by personal or political pressures. A judge who is threatened that a decision will endanger his or her life, personal reputation, position or operating budget does not have judicial independence.
When addressing the Virginia Constitutional Convention in January 1830, Chief Justice John Marshall stated that "the greatest scourge an angry Heaven ever inflicted upon an ungrateful and sinning people was an ignorant, a corrupt or a dependent Judiciary."
The ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence brought this sentiment to modern times by stating:
"Independence makes a system of impartial justice possible by enabling judges to protect and enforce the rights of people and by allowing judges, without fear of reprisal, to strike down actions of the legislative and executive branches that exceed their designated power. Independence is not for the personal benefit of the judges, but for the protection of the people."
The Judicial Independence Project of the League of Women Voters Education Fund focuses on developing the capacity to understand and discuss the complex judicial systems in each locality. A project designed to increase understanding of the court system has many possible starting points.