Q: What is the “least understood branch of government?”
A: Most people are aware that our government has three separate and co-equal branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. However, the judicial branch is often the least understood, perhaps in part because judges do so much of their important work in court rooms not regularly visited by most members of the public. Also, judicial candidates are not allowed to make issue-based campaign promises about how they will decide cases, since judges are required to make fair and impartial decisions based on the facts of a case, current law, rules of evidence and constitutional law.
Q: What, exactly, does the judicial branch do?
A: The judiciary plays a critical role in the operation of the checks and balances that allows our government to reflect the will of the people while protecting the rights of all individuals. This duty requires judicial independence.
Q: What is judicial independence?
A: Judicial independence is the freedom to make decisions based on the law and constitutions rather than on what voters or special interest groups may want. It leads to fair and impartial courts.
Q: What else should I know about judicial independence?
A: These five principles help ensure judicial independence:
1) Decisional independence. This allows fair and impartial judges to decide cases according to the rule of law and the governing constitutions without being affected by personal interest or threats or pressure from any source. This may be confusing to some voters, who may believe that, just because they are elected, judges are bound to follow the wishes of those who elected them.
2) Institutional independence. This recognizes the judiciary as a separate and co-equal branch of government charged with administering justice according to the rule of law, and as a constitutional partner with the executive and legislative branches.
3) Competent judges. Fair and impartial courts require competent judges who have been selected for their merit and who have had sufficient time as members of the bar to demonstrate an appropriate level of legal experience.
4) Adequate resources. An independent judiciary that is able to serve the people must have adequate resources including a budget that provides appropriate facilities and equipment, security and just compensation for judges. When inadequately funded courts have to close, reduce hours of operation or try to function while understaffed, they are not able to execute their essential constitutional and statutory functions in a fair, efficient and timely manner. The result is a delay or denial of justice.
5) Accountability. To maintain the confidence of the citizens, there must also be a system of account ability for judges, including a judicial code of ethics and a process for citizens to file complaints against judges for illegal or unethical conduct. It is also essential to have an impartial disciplinary system that allows for a range of sanctions, including the removal of errant judges. Judicial accountability also requires a transparent system that provides for public and media access to court proceedings and legal decisions. Further, judicial accountability means accountability to the law and to the constitutions.
Q: What other qualities may foster judicial independence?
A: Each judge brings to the bench educational and professional credentials, as well as a host of life experiences that help form their perspectives. Including judges who reflect diversity on the bench is one way of expanding perspectives within the judiciary while maintaining fairness and impartiality.
Q: What is Ohio doing to help people learn more about our “least understood branch?”
A: A statewide judicial candidate website was created, for the first time, in advance of the 2016 general elections. Supreme Court of Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, along with partners including the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio State Bar Association, the Ohio News Media Association and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, developed the website (www.judicialvotescount.org) to help voters understand more about judicial candidates and to explain how the state’s judicial system works. The judicialvotescount.org website provides a tool for Ohio voters in the years to come, helping voters select able judges who will preside over fair, impartial and adequately funded courts.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by OSBA member Michael E. Flowers, an attorney in the business department of the Columbus office of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC.