U.S. Judiciary: Calls for “Judicial Independence” Must Be Matched with Expectation of Judicial Responsibility and Accountability

Background: This blog has not covered the events of a sexual assault that occurred on the campus of Stanford University. The suspect, Brock Turner, was found guilty of the charges. The victim presented a 12-page victim impact statement during the sentencing. The judge, Aaron Persky, himself a Stanford graduate and former university athlete, rendered a sentence, which now has been subject to critique.

[Note: Brock Turner’s father’s (Dan Turner) made a statement before the court: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/06/father-stanford-university-student-brock-turner-sexual-assault-statement.]

Issue: In response to the public critique of Judge Persky, a California lawyers association, the Santa Clara County Bar Association, issued a statement reported in the Washington Post, which acknowledged the public’s right to critique but was concerned how the debate did not include acknowledgement of judicial independence as an essential piece of a stable rule of law.

The SCCBA recognizes and supports the public’s right to comment on issues of public interest, including the proper adjudication of sexual assault cases and the fair and equal treatment of all who come before the courts. The SCCBA does not itself comment on rulings in individual cases to which it is not a party or amicus, and it, therefore, will not state a position on the Turner sentence.

However, the SCCBA also recognizes the importance of judicial independence, a principle that has not featured prominently in the national discussion to date. The judiciary plays a critical role in upholding the rule of law in our society and constitutional system. Judges have a duty to apply the law to the facts and evidence before them, regardless of public opinion or political pressure. In that role, judges provide an important check against other political forces. If judges had to fear direct, personal repercussions as a result of their decisions in individual cases, the rule of law would suffer. These principles date back to the founding of our nation and are a bedrock of the United States and California Constitutions.

My response is the following–there is judicial independence that should be respected by the people; however, there is an equally heavy expectation on lawyers and judges–that the laws be fairly administered. It is weak to place all demands on citizens while at the same time excusing the legal profession and the judiciary from accountability and responsibility to the legal system. The Santa Clara County bar statement woefully ignored this vital point.

[Author’s note-June 13, 2016: The San Diego County Bar Association also neglects judicial responsibility and accountability expectations from its statement.]

A simple throwaway line–well, that’s how the law goes–when there is a decision that the public does not like (when in fact it is a human being that determines the decision (the judge)) is a weak and unacceptable position. When a judge fails to be responsible to the high expectations of his or her public office–and to the legal system itself–there seems to be little to no recourse for the citizen to pursue. Such a one-sided judicial system, focused solely on the exercise of its own power, therefore, can become immune to its own responsibility to the rule of law and to the people living in the country.

I would like to see bar associations consider these latter points than just tossing out “judicial independence” rhetoric.