Why We Need an Independent Judiciary

At a time when it seems every institution, profession and business in the United States is under pressure to justify its mission and value, we should not be surprised that our country's judicial system might undergo similar scrutiny. Some believe they have a solution to what ails our nation: turn off courthouse lights and kick out unpopular judges or subpoena them to elaborate on their opinions -- especially if you don't agree with decisions made in those courthouses and by those judges.

These headline grabbers are simply that. They seek to undo more than 200 years of constitutional democracy, rather than strengthen what is the one "safe place" for any American to go to resolve a dispute or seek protection: our courts.

Our nation's founders specifically separated our government into three co-equal branches by design: to prevent the excessive accumulation of power by the legislative, executive or judicial branches. All three also have the tools to check the other two and hold them to their defined purpose. Our constitutional system of checks and balances has long been recognized as the key to our unique constitutional democracy.

Alexander Hamilton understood the inherent challenge for our courts in this organization of government. As he explained in Federalist Paper No. 78, the judiciary is in "continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed or influenced by its co-ordinate branches."

Judicial independence is critical to sustaining our democratic form of government established by the U.S. Constitution and developed through history. Judges must have the ability to make decisions to protect and enforce the rights of the people -- including the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Their decisions should be made without fear of reprisal or favor, and they should not be subject to the whims and passions of the political season. The public must have confidence that judges will be impartial, making decisions by applying the law to the merits of the case while not being swayed by outside influence.

That outside influence can be overt or subtle: The judiciary isn't a powerful interest group. Courts can not raise money or marshal voters. Our courts are easy targets because judges individually cannot respond to these attacks. Nor should they.

With our country's growing population and fragile economy, elected officials and those seeking office would be wise to focus their attention on the fundamental problems facing our courts. The state judicial system is on the verge of becoming nonfunctional and irrelevant because of increasing workloads and inadequate funding. The federal judiciary suffers from a chronic undersupply of judges and a ballooning number of statutes that have led to a growing docket of cases.

No one claims that judges are infallible. That is why we have multi-layer appellate courts within the judiciary, and a system of checks and balances and a separation of powers among the branches. We can and should pursue a thoughtful conversation about how to further improve and strengthen our judicial system at all levels without denigrating individual judges or undermining judicial independence. Civics education, if more widely implemented in our schools and our communities, can and will spark a renewed dedication to the preservation of our constitutional democracy.

No one likes a bully -- be it an office holder, a candidate for public office or a branch of government. The drafters of our Constitution knew that better than anyone. That generation was defined by the monuments it built. Will ours be defined by the ones we destroy? Let's stand up for one of our most precious monuments -- our judiciary -- as a place of integrity and independence, and as a refuge for those in our society who seek to enforce rights and protect freedoms. Our liberty depends on it.