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Abrams: Unjust Criticism of the Judicial System

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jeff abrams ibaAs many of you know, one of the state court judges has recently been under attack by members of the public relating to a sentence issued for an individual convicted of rape by a jury as well as a comment made to the woman who had suffered the attacks. The Indianapolis Star published several articles regarding the case and, in relatively no time, national media sources picked up on the story and provided additional commentary regarding the matter.

The Indianapolis Bar Association has had a long-time policy on addressing unjust criticism of the judicial system. While we have not needed to review very many cases, the recent case provided an unusual twist on the review of the judicial system. I want to emphasize that the IndyBar Committee did not extensively review the merits of the case and our statement is not in any way reflective of any comment on the substance of the judge’s sentencing decision. Nobody on the Committee was in the courtroom, so the underlying facts of the case and the trial were not personally observed.

On the merits, we note only that Indiana law does not require judges to sentence persons convicted of Class B felony rape to incarceration. This was pointed out by several legal commentators. We also recognize that the public, including some of our IndyBar members, have expressed concerns about the sentence issued in the case and about certain parts of the judge’s sentencing statement. Further, we respect the rights of those who disagree with the decision to express their opinions publicly. A strong legal system should be able to tolerate public scrutiny and should benefit from citizens actively engaged in discussions about judicial decisions.

The IndyBar’s adopted policy on unjust criticism of the judiciary requires IndyBar to:

1. Respond if the judicial system is subject to unjust attack;

2. Foster and maintain confidence in the orderly processes of our courts among the citizens of the state and the nation;

3. Explain the difference between valid, constructive criticism of the decisions of our courts and baseless charges;

4. Assist the public in understanding the difficult burden of the courts to strike a proper balance between individual constitutional rights and the rights of society;

5. Assist the public in understanding the operation of courts, judicial procedures and the administration of justice; and

6. Bring to the attention of proper authorities fair and well-founded criticism of the operation of the judicial system.

It would seem that one issue presented here is the magnitude of social media and how it can lead to social awareness. The Committee reviewed all of the foregoing in light of the recent case and made the following conclusions. There have been some articles that have provided a fair balance between strong criticism and understanding the constraints that the system creates through the sentencing statutes established by our Legislature. However, some commentators have made statements that can only be characterized as insulting, attacking the integrity of the judge and, in some instances, communicating physical threats. We do not believe that any of such conduct is appropriate no matter how strongly one’s opinion is of this matter.

We believe that the public should understand three key elements for the judicial system. First, judges should and do expect to be criticized in our system for their decisions. Secondly, judges who stand for election to their offices should and do expect their decisions to be made issues in their campaigns. Lastly, judges should not be subjected to baseless challenges to their integrity or violent threats about their decisions.

The public enjoys the freedom to express their disagreements, but it should be done in a much more constructive manner. Social media has made it easy to send mean-spirited and threatening comments regarding all aspects of life, including judicial decisions. We see it in our offices, with our children and in our everyday lives. The time when people would pick up the phone to talk to somebody about a problem has almost become archaic. This is a sad statement of how our community has evolved. The better approach to effect change would be by providing well thought out and constructive comments to all appropriate parties. Our membership, consisting of attorneys, paralegals and judges, should know that the IndyBar will respond appropriately to unjust criticism of the judicial system and continue to support the efforts of all of our colleagues in promoting justice for all involved.•

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