To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
In recent years, attacks on state and federal judges, attorneys, and the judicial system have become an increasingly prominent part of our political process. During the 2012 election cycle alone, spending on television ads in state court races exceeded $31 million, a new record. Many of these campaigns featured prominent “attack ads” questioning the qualifications or integrity of individual judges or judicial candidates. Judges on the bench are also berated with claims of “judicial activism” and questions about their impartiality and the propriety of individual judicial decisions. Many of these attack ads unfairly question the integrity of capable and good judges; dangerously, ad hominem criticisms undermine the public’s faith in the entire judicial system.
Undoubtedly, litigants or the media are sometimes understandably frustrated by judicial outcomes that they do not agree with. Some criticism of judges’ decisions is, of course, acceptable and even desirable as part of the political process. Often, though, criticism of judges’ decisions, and in particular, unsupportable criticism of judges’ motives, oversimplifies complex legal disputes. Instead of focusing on the intricacies of any given proceeding or dispute, critics often just focus on the outcome and ask themselves, “is this the result I want?”
What critics often fail to recognize is that the rules of law which may seem to delay proceedings or occasionally lead to unpopular outcomes have actually been put in place to protect complex and nuanced social, economic and legal interactions. For example, members of the public may express frustration when a criminal defendant appears to be “let off on a technicality just because the police have conducted an improper investigation.” Or, parties to a civil suit may complain about the judge or tribunal because of the amount of time necessary for the judge to issue a determination. While the judicial process may sometimes be frustrating, attorneys and judges operate according to rules that are designed to protect people, the community and the integrity of the system. Although the public may view certain issues as technicalities, attorneys and judges often focus on police actions, investigations or procedure in order to ensure that people’s rights are not violated or that the state does not overstep its powers. Similarly, a judge – often faced with a backlog of civil cases – may take substantial time to render a decision precisely because she wants to devote the necessary amount of time to a matter to ensure that she “gets it right.” Simply put, failure to honor the rule of law risks depriving all of us of the rights and protections that we enjoy – the benefit of expediency, categorically, is not worth this trade-off.
Some of the rules that have been put in place to protect people’s rights and the integrity of the judicial process also make it difficult for judges to respond to public criticism. Thus, when a critic oversimplifies a complex legal dispute and attacks a judge’s decision, the judge often cannot respond. The result is that certain unjustified attacks and oversimplification of legal issues or procedure go unanswered, undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process.
The New York County Lawyers Association has taken an active role in defending judges against unwarranted attacks. NYCLA has defended judges who have been unfairly accused in the media of bias or incompetence, whom politicians have demanded be removed from the bench because the politicians disagreed with individual judicial decisions, and who, without the ability to defend themselves in the media, have been made scapegoats or targets in political debate. In doing so, NYCLA has worked for decades to defend the judicial process while respecting vigorous political debate. This coming year, NYCLA will be hosting a series of conferences about the importance of the role of the rule of law in helping our public and private institutions balance complex issues.