I am writing this President’s column in San Francisco at a meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. Yes, there is an association of us, frightening though that may seem, yet I unapologetically say it is a good thing. This association helps bar leaders and executives analyze and confront the unique challenges we have as our legal worlds collide, whether it be defining (and paying for) the ideal legal education in 2013, triaging the challenges of our underfunded courts, the changing professional landscape for today’s (and tomorrow’s) practitioners or the very real access to justice issues apparent by the increasing percentage of individuals and businesses who just cannot afford to hire a lawyer anymore to solve their problems.
For example: one panel I attended at this conference was about the continued politicizing of the judiciary in this country and the literal backlash against judicial officers because of the decisions they make. As if judges’ interpretations of the law should be subject to political approval; as if their jobs depended on their towing the party line.
Lest you think this is not possible, think again. In 2009, a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court struck down that state’s law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples only.1 Subsequently in 2010, three of those justices up for retention were defeated – the result of an unprecedented attack on the merit selection process saying it is wholly undemocratic, and that judges’ legal opinions should mirror the opinions of the general public. Regardless of what you think of the issue of same sex marriage, to me it is abhorrent that our judicial officers can literally be removed from the bench because their interpretation of the law is not in alignment with prevailing public opinion.
This is not just an issue in Iowa. At least nine other states including Indiana have considered measures in their most recent legislative sessions that would significantly modify or even eliminate the “merit” selection system as it stands, resigning judicial selection to political influence over qualifications.
However, here in Indianapolis at the IndyBar, we are staying the course and not wavering from our longstanding position in favor of merit selection. We will continue to support our members on the bench by responding to unfair judicial criticism. Likewise, we support limits on political contributions and a transparency in reporting. We oppose slating fees that give the appearance of impropriety and subsequently put our judges unnecessarily at risk.
As recently as last month, the full IndyBar Board of Directors approved the proposed Model Rule Guidelines which were formulated by the Attorneys for an Independent Bench (AIB) Committee earlier this summer under the superb leadership of AIB Committee Co-Chairs and Past Presidents John Kautzman and Kevin McGoff. Visit www.indybar.org to view the proposed guidelines.
This Bar will continue to serve its members, who in overwhelming numbers support Merit Selection and the Rule of Law unfettered by political persuasion. As Alexander Hamilton outlined in the Federalist Papers, it is the judiciary’s unique power to be able to render government action unconstitutional, even if it may be popular. Absent this power of independence, there are no sufficient checks and balances against unconstitutional government action. Absent this power of independence, judges are just politicians in black robes.•
1 Varnum v. Brien