Dear 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.