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Indiana Judges Association: Judges are good government partners

David J. Dreyer
January 30, 2013
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IJA-Dreyer-DavidDear Gov. Pence:

Congratulations on your election as Governor of Indiana and for a job well done. All Indiana judges look forward to serving with you and your administration in the coming years. As a lawyer, you appreciate the role of courts and judges. However, many of our citizens simply do not know what courts do and what a judge’s job really is.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Some observers wonder if there is a deficit of “legal literacy” among our communities. A few years back, the National School Board Association publicly urged its members to learn more about the legal system and how schools operate within it. These days, there is even The Legal Literacy Project which seeks to educate non-lawyers about the laws that affect their lives. Overall, legal literacy can be defined as an elementary knowledge of laws and basic information about how the legal system works. Detailed expertise is not necessary, but a citizen needs legal literacy to properly evaluate one’s legal needs, fairly discern the issues of the day, or decide how to vote. All too often, the shtick of Judge Judy is the indelible image in people’s minds about courts.

And it is often surprising to us how often the general public and media presume that judges are just like other public officials. But as you know, Governor, we do not have political advisers, public opinion polls, press conferences or even photo ops. All we have is public confidence (hopefully), our partners in other branches of government and, of course, the law.

Overall, we are encouraged that you will always be supportive of judges’ limited role in government and appreciative of judges as good government partners. This may occasionally be problematic, especially when we disagree, and because we can never meet and discuss policy like the legislative branch. No, we are constitutional teammates, but we can’t audible plays, like Peyton Manning. Instead, we govern together in the time-honored adversary process – judges only get involved when people bring their problems to us. Believe me, there are plenty of them, every day, all year round. A trial court judge probably meets more citizens and solves more everyday problems than any other elected official. And he or she does it alone.

So in good faith and the spirit of optimism that should accompany the beginning of every governor’s term, we express our gratitude for your work to come and your understanding of the work of the courts. If you want, you can forward the notes below to anyone you think would benefit from becoming more legally literate.

1. Law is about people: As this column has shown before, every case involves people, no matter what. As someone else once said, that even includes corporations. The effects of a judge’s ruling affects people as individuals, employees, shareholders, doctors, patients, neighbors and sometimes state officials. But law is not politics and not policy – we judges do not announce personal positions or seek to get anything accomplished other than the law’s answer to the case before us.

2. Judges are people, too: There is nothing harder for people to understand than the fact that judges do not rule on the basis of preference. Sure, we like some lawyers better than others and feel more sympathetic to one party in a case sometimes. We even wish some laws were different on occasion. But those personal considerations mean nothing when we do our jobs. Really.

3. The judiciary is the “least dangerous branch”: As you know, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers to alleviate some concerns about the power of federal judges with lifetime appointments. He said that the courts have “no influence over either the sword or the purse . . . It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.” Overall, that is still true – we judges rely on the other branches to make sure the laws are followed, rulings are enforced and the public continues to have confidence in all of us. Without that, we lose the rule of law.

We know you appreciate the chance to hear from judges about how to remain good government partners. We hope to be in touch through the appropriate channels – bar association events, public forums, law school presentations and columns like this. We look forward to hearing from you as well. Good luck, as we both carry on the people’s business.•

__________

Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  2. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  3. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

  4. My dear Smith, I was beginning to fear, from your absense, that some Obrien of the Nanny State had you in Room 101. So glad to see you back and speaking truth to power, old chum.

  5. here is one from Reason magazine. these are not my words, but they are legitimate concerns. http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/03/fearmongering-at-the-splc quote: "The Southern Poverty Law Center, which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds, has issued a new "intelligence report" announcing that "an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) -- a 244% jump." To illustrate how dangerous these groups are, the Center cites some recent arrests of right-wing figures for planning or carrying out violent attacks. But it doesn't demonstrate that any of the arrestees were a part of the Patriot milieu, and indeed it includes some cases involving racist skinheads, who are another movement entirely. As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible." --- I wonder if all the republicans that belong to the ISBA would like to know who and why this outfit was called upon to receive such accolades. I remember when they were off calling Trent Lott a bigot too. Preposterous that this man was brought to an overwhelmingly republican state to speak. This is a nakedly partisan institution and it was a seriously bad choice.

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