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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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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