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Indiana Judges Association: Protect 'We (All) the People'

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IJA-Dreyer-DavidIn 1947, 16 German judges were tried and convicted for crimes against humanity, that is, enforcing Nazi racial purity laws supporting the Holocaust. In 2010, three Iowa judges were attacked and removed for striking down a same-sex marriage ban, that is, what some supporters call a marriage purity law. All these judges were guilty of doing their job. So what’s the difference? Well, the Nazi judges were following what they felt was required by the German government, and to some extent the German people, regardless of the consequences. But the Iowa judges were guilty of doing what they felt was required by the law, regardless of the consequences.

Afterwards, Iowa law professor Todd Pettys told the Wall Street Journal, “The notion of throwing someone out on the basis of one ruling is entirely in tension with all other considerations that went into coming up with Iowa’s policy [of keeping electoral politics out of the judiciary] . . . Given this, you’d think that the standard for rejecting a judge would be pretty extreme, like misconduct or a pattern of blatantly disregarding the rule of law. . . There’s just no misbehavior [here] of any kind.” So has electoral politics seeped into the American judiciary?

In 1849, a South Bend state trial judge named Elisha Egbert freed former slave David Powell and his family who were tracked down by their Kentucky “owners.” He interpreted a 1793 law to allow only damages for runaway slaves, not possession. If Judge Egbert was facing slave-owning voters, would he have been thrown out? A year later, Congress passed the Federal Fugitive Slave Act, and Northern judges everywhere followed the law to return former slaves to former masters. What would Judge Egbert have done under the new law? Presumably, he would have done his job – interpreted the law and followed it. If he was still in office.

Unfortunately for all Americans, a new Brennan Center for Justice report entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections” identifies a “grave and growing” challenge to impartial consideration of judges and the emergence of several “super spenders,” like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But is this new? Under accusatory euphemisms like “activist” or “legislating,” there is a discouraging record of judicial challenges based more upon a partisan single interest scorecard than the rule of law:

In 1996, Tennessee Justice Penny White was rejected for just concurring in a unanimous decision reversing a death penalty conviction – three California justices were earlier removed because of death penalty opposition.

In Kansas, Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss and three colleagues recently survived strong opposition (abortion).

In Colorado, Chief Justice Mary Mullarky retired this year rather than face an organization called “Clear The Bench.” (taxes, redistricting, eminent domain)

In Illinois, Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride vigorously fought and survived opposition based not upon any ruling, but seeking a more partisan court for upcoming political redistricting. Even local cynics conceded any new judge might still be independent. (“It’s conceivable that [the court] would do what it ought to do.” – Illinois official Dawn Clark Netsch)

“The business of the law is to make sense of the confusion of what we call human life, “said poet Archibald MacLeish, himself a lawyer, “to reduce it to order but at the same time to give it possibility, scope, even dignity.” This could be a standard by which to judge a judge – not whether we agree on a single case, or to bully an expedient political point. Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa opposition leader, declared, “It’s ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the courts.’” But according to the Founding Fathers, he is wrong. The plain words of the Constitution give power to the people – and deliberately balance that power with the rule of law. So it is more accurate to say, “We all the people (protected by the law all the time),” not “we the (majority of) people (only in one election on one issue).”

What can be done? Nothing. In a democracy, no law should stop these “super spenders” and single-issue thinkers. But judges who forfeit their independence for short-term considerations may face long-term consequences. Just ask the German judges. Overall, there has been no diminishing effect on the courage and dedication of our judges to do what is right rather than do what polls show. But there will always be good judges who will be removed, who will get thrown out for the wrong reason, or no reason. Regardless, the Republic stays strong because judges stay strong. Just ask the Powell family.•
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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 in this column are the author’s

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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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