The Importance of Judicial Independence

Today’s edition of The Tennessean includes two important critiques of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s campaign to oust three judges from the state Supreme Court, as discussed in Lisa Guenther’s guest post, “Death and Taxes: The Real Story Behind Tennessee’s Electric Chair.”

In an Opinion piece entitled, “Politics has no place in Tennessee appellate courts,” Jim Edwards writes:

Ramsey seems to believe that constitutional protections are “technicalities” that enable guilty people to “get off,” and as such are an impediment to justice that should be ignored by our state Supreme Court justices.

The founders of this nation were wise people. They were aware of defects in the English justice system and sought to avoid them in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Decisions on the introduction of evidence are weighty matters that require the minds of people of intellect and legal weight. Mr. Ramsey’s approach to justice, on the other hand, is political.

Our system of justice at the appellate level must always and forever involve legal minds that are unimpeded by political allegiances if justice and fairness are to reign.

Our current Tennessee Supreme Court justices seem to be fair and impartial arbiters. The fact that lawyers from both parties support them suggests that Tennesseans should reject any attempt by any politician to affect its membership on some partisan basis.

No Tennessean, indeed no American, should ever have judgment imposed based on his/her political allegiance. Political justice is in fact no justice. It is a far better price to pay that the guilty go free rather than the innocent ever be convicted.

And in a Letter to the Editor entitled, “Ramsey Breaches Separation of Power,” Kenneth Penegar writes:

In launching a campaign to unseat sitting judges of the state Supreme Court, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is effectively mounting an assault on the independence of the court. He is using his office as a powerful member of the General Assembly to intimidate three particular judges for their rulings on issues important to his overall governmental agenda.

The episodes in which one branch of government seeks to control the membership of another, other than through the constitutional processes of impeachment, are rare in American history. What makes Ramsey’s gambit particularly pernicious is that he seems unaware or indifferent to his own standing as speaker of one of the two houses of the legislature. He is not a private citizen simply initiating recall petitions.

In throwing the influence of his office into spotlighting particular judges for their decisions, Ramsey is overreaching. Nothing could be more central to the core constitutional arrangement of government in America than the separation of powers. Why? The Founders believed that our liberties are safer that way.

When the authority of courts to decide cases according to the law is interfered with, every citizen, not merely members of the bar, ought to be worried.

Both authors argue that when the independence of the judiciary is undermined, everyone suffers.  This is one of many examples of an issue that affects people on death row most dramatically – after all, their lives depend on the possibility of a successful appeal – but which also has an impact on everyone who depends on a fair and transparent legal system.  And that means all of us.

In the coming weeks, Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice will host a series of guest posts exploring issues raised by prisons and the death penalty, with a view to their broader significance for anyone who lives in a world of mass incarceration and state killing.  And again — that means all of us.

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