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Indiana Judges Association: Judging from the mountaintop

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IJA-Dreyer-DavidI have a confession to make. I have always been fond of the wigs that English judges wear. What better way to define the role and independence of the judiciary than to appear oddly physically different? Of course, all British barristers wear wigs, but judges’ wigs are a lot larger, grander and more regal. If judges wore wigs in the United States, there might be a marked increase, I say, in public confidence in our courts. Hopefully, it would not be outweighed by any marked increase in public satire, but it could not be any worse than the judge shows now on daytime TV. The public always needs to understand that courts are serious and judges are different. More importantly, it is necessary to understand why.

We hear a lot these days about “judicial independence,” and how we should pick who our judges are. On one hand, all of us lawyers understand the significance of keeping courts free from outside pressure – from legislatures, other elected officials, and special interests – and ensuring a process that at least appears fair. On the other hand, Americans are suspicious of any power not accountable to the people. According to Federal Judicial Center researchers, this dilemma is as old as the Union. “A belief in judicial independence exists in the United States alongside an equally strong belief in democratic accountability. … Judicial independence means different things to different people. … It is perhaps most important in enabling judges to protect individual rights even in the face of popular opposition.”

But if judges should be “independent,” does that mean they are somehow more special than other people? Politics makes strange bedfellows, but judges cannot even flirt. So, other government branches sometimes see judges as arrogant, aloof or too powerful. In Michigan, for example, legislators have sought to transfer jurisdiction of all lawsuits against the state to its Court of Appeals where more political pressure can presumably be applied. The little secret about judges is that they are no different than anybody, although required to make weighty decisions about everybody. A Broadway play called “The Mountaintop,” is now coming to the rest of the country, including Indianapolis. It is an unsettling portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a real, conflicted, flawed person, not the historical social justice hero. It means to irk the audience into realizing how the courage to act, and the difficulty, is the same for all of us, no matter who we are.

Yes, I am a person just like anybody else, but my job declares that I am different. Ever since I have been a lawyer, people often treat me apart from others. When I became a judge almost 18 years ago, some of my best friends insisted on calling me “Judge” because they now felt funny calling me “Dave.” Judges are colleagues of fellow attorneys, not supervisors, although judges have a unique obligation and responsibility to run the system. Temper and toughness are not a natural part of my personality. But even I have decided to yell at attorneys (on rare occasion) because it was required to maintain order, professionalism, fairness and enforce the law.

Hence, my attraction to the English wigs. The separation between me and my judicial role would be much easier to manage. I would be seen as the guy with a funny wig, not Dave who made an unpopular call. Since England already uses wigs to define judicial work, what should American judges wear? Here is a list and some thoughts:

• The helmet of the court’s closest National League Football team. Since the NFL is the most lucrative athletic organization in world history, this would probably draw unwanted claims of corporate compromise.

• Baseball cap turned backwards. Although this is an attractive option to inspire the Millennial generation to believe in our legal system, it is probably a net loss of confidence among the general population.

• Bishops miter. Besides risking First Amendment issues regarding religion, it would just look too funny.

• Construction worker hardhat. Considering what judges do in the courtroom, this is clearly the most logical, but may not be taken seriously.

• A tasteful mask. Keeping one’s face hidden may create a good image and an accurate depiction of a truly independent judge. But how would we know what judges are thinking, are they bored, are they amused, are they getting it?

“Judicial independence,” Justice Stephen Breyer once said, “is in part a state of mind, a matter of expectation, habit, and belief among not just judges, lawyers, and legislators, but millions of people.” A 1996 Harris poll showed 84 percent of U.S. citizens are against political influence in court cases. That would indeed total millions of people. The challenge of judges is to rule from the mountaintop, but never leave the village. Only when judges are invisible can there be true judicial independence. In the meantime, what matters is the process – and the goodwill of our profession to keep trying.•

__________

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. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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