Sunday, September 24, 2023
Every appellate advocate wants an impartial and independent judiciary, not a bench populated by people who would trim their sails to whatever political winds put them in their seat or is blowing so hard that the easier course is to let it dictate a result. Instead, we ask for a fair application of the law.
It may seem obvious that our justice system should operate that way, but political partisans often seek to bend the courts to their favor, whether through the appointment process or through elections. Even so, we hope that on the bench our judges will seek to make decisions rooted in law rather than political preference. Not everyone agrees, however.
In 2006, one stripe of political partisans operating under the banner of the South Dakota Judicial Accountability Project sought approval of a constitutional amendment that became known as “Jail for Judges.” The proposed amendment, which was defeated at the ballot box, would have allowed thirteen special grand jurors to decide that a judge’s ruling was wrong and either fine or jail the judge, as well as strip away as much as one-half of earned retirement benefits. Judicial rulings made years ago would have been subject to this process, as long as the jurist was still alive.
As extreme as that measure was, we are seeing a spate of new challenges to our courts that seek to guarantee certain results and threaten judicial independence. One that has received a great deal of attention is the threat of impeachment aimed at a newly installed Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. It has a transparently political purpose: keeping the Court’s new majority from upsetting the legislature’s redistricting handiwork. The basis for impeachment is incredibly weak. During her campaign, now-Justice Jane Protasiewicz called the gerrymandered districts “unfair” and “rigged,” while still avoiding any promise that she would rule one way or another. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accused her of “prejudging” the challenge to those districts, now before the Court, and has suggested the impeachment was a proper response if she chooses not to recuse herself.
Of course, this is not the first time an elected judge spoke to issues coming before a court. In one instance, the Washington Supreme Court considered whether one of their newly elected members was subject to discipline for his participation in an anti-abortion rally on the day of his swearing-in ceremony. At the “March for Life” rally, Sanders thanked the crowd for supporting his election and expressed “his belief in the preservation and protection of innocent human life.” A judicial conduct commission found probable cause that Sanders violated several different canons of judicial conduct, but the state supreme court found that he acted within his free speech rights and his comments and actions did “not lead to a clear conclusion that he was, as a result, not impartial on the issue as it might present itself to him in his role as a judge.”
In another case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican Party v. White, the Republican Party and several candidates for judicial office successfully challenged a canon of judicial conduct that prohibited candidates for judicial office in Minnesota from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues on First Amendment grounds. Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court distinguished between “pledges or promises,” a prohibition that was not before the Court, and merely announcing ones views, which the Court said does not bind a candidate once elected.
The opinion found it incongruous to permit candidates to express support for a prior judicial decision, but not criticism of it. It further noted that the prohibition related to taking positions on issues, but not expressing oneself for or against particular lawsuit parties. Thus, rather than be aimed at impartiality, which was its putative purpose, the Court found the prohibition was against expressing a view of the law upon which voters might choose to vote. As Justice O’Connor expressed in a concurrence, as long as you have judicial elections, something she disfavored, candidates, including incumbents, are going to express views on issues before the public, and that doing so was necessary to maintain public confidence in the courts.
These cases suggest that the principal basis for impeachment in Wisconsin is inconsistent with established First Amendment principles. Garnering less attention, but no less problematic, is the tactic being employed in North Carolina. Justice Anita Earls, a black jurist on the state supreme court, gave an interview in which she advocated for greater diversity in the state court system, labeled the frequent interruptions of female advocates before the court an example of implicit bias, and bemoaned the termination of racial equity and implicit bias training in the judiciary. She relied on a recent study for her comments and said that diverse decision-making results in better outcomes, assures that a range of perspectives are considered, and secures greater public support because people are confident that more voices are heard.
For those remarks, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission began an investigation in August based on reading those remarks as accusing her judicial colleagues of “racial, gender and/or political bias.” The Commission suggested that the remarks “potentially violate Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct which requires a judge to conduct herself ‘at all times in a manner which promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.’” Earls, who believes she was supporting public confidence in the judiciary, filed a federal lawsuit to enjoin the Commission from proceeding, citing First Amendment grounds and intimating that the Commission’s investigation could be used by the legislature to remove her from the bench.
Early in our history, these types of attacks on judges when the political powers that be disagreed with rulings had a brief lifespan. The party of Thomas Jefferson, in control of the presidency and the Congress, was frustrated by the Federalist judicial appointees and their rulings. They tested the impeachment powers first against a New Hampshire district court judge, John Pickering, who was removed from office in 1804 upon apparently deserved accusations of habitual intoxication and insanity. Then Congress went after Justice Samuel Chase in what was generally regarded as a dry run at Chief Justice Marshall. Chase had placed himself in the sights of the new Democratic-Republican majority through partisan rants contained in his jury charges, as well as his handling of cases under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Despite holding a sufficient majority to convict in the Senate, enough party members balked at the process so that conviction fell four votes short, effectively ending the effort aimed Marshall and understood as a commitment to judicial independence that seemed strong until more recently.
As advocates, we need to recommit to first principles and denounce these new efforts to turn the judicial branch into a political football that can be manipulated to achieve what proper legal arguments cannot. While the judiciary is not immune from the ebb and flow of political opinion, it should not be reshaped by political threats based on the expression of views.
 Matter of Disciplinary Proceeding Against Sanders, 135 Wash. 2d 175, 178, 955 P.2d 369, 370 (1998).
 Id. at 768, 955 P.2d at 370.
 Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 768 (2002).
 Id. at 770.
 Id. at 788–89 (O’Connor, J., concurring).
 Earls v. N.C. Jud. Stds. Comm’n, et al., Complaint, Case No. 1:23-cv-00734 (N.C. M.D., filed Aug. 29, 2023).