Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand

first_img July 15, 2000 Gary Blankenship Associate Editor Regular News Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand Associate Editor As the Florida courts deal with pro se litigants, look to improve juvenile justice issues and struggle with financial issues, they must not lose sight that judicial independence cannot be compromised. “The concept of judicial independence is at the core of any ordered society,” according to Supreme Court Chief Justice Major B. Harding. “We have but to look at the Declaration of Independence to know that among the grievances they set out was the king would not allow the legislature to enact any judicial power. The judges were subject to the king, not only for their appointment, but also for their salaries.” Harding spoke at the Judicial Luncheon June 22 at the Bar’s Annual Meeting and delivered the annual state of the judiciary address. Some signers of the Declaration of Independence paid a high price for their call for judicial independence, losing their lives, fortunes or health, he said. Yet the idea was so central to the American Revolution that in 1787 the framers of the Constitution enshrined it in that document. “The concept of an independent judiciary is made very clear by the method judges are selected and appointed, and by their tenure,” Harding said. And as such, judges frequently have been thorns in the sides of the executive and legislative branches “not because they want to be but because the judiciary has been charged with keeping the balance.” Judicial independence has frequently been unpopular, he said. Thomas Jefferson was critical of judges and wanted to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to pack the court with sympathetic judges after many of his New Deal programs were found unconstitutional. Dictatorships, Harding said, are marked by a lack of judicial independence. He noted that Germany’s Weimar Republic required judicial independence, but after Adolph Hitler assumed power, he set up his own judicial system, appointed the judges, and took his cases there. Judicial independence means judges can uphold the law without fear of reprisal, he said. “During the Clinton unpleasantness, many judges had to rule on issues related to the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States,” the Chief Justice said. “Yet all of those judges went to bed at night without fear there would be a knock on the door and they would be carried away for those rulings. “You have a unique privilege of making a living while preserving a way of life, a way of life that has kept order and liberty in this country for more than 200 years.” The price of that privilege, Harding added, is judges must rule free of bias and prejudice “and we must be above reproach.” Aside from judicial independence, several issues are facing the state’s courts, he said. Since becoming chief justice two years ago, “It has been my dream to build public trust and confidence in the judiciary,” Harding said. “To do that, it has been my hope we could balance judicial independence and judicial accountability.” Accountability, he said, means showing how the courts use the resources they are allocated. Part of that is using the legislatively-mandated Delphi system — a weighted caseload measuring system — to determine the need for new judges. And the legislature, Harding said, requires the courts to use its performance based program budgeting system, known as PB squared, for its annual budget requests. “We have had to determine how many widgets we can manufacture in the judicial branch and how much those widgets cost,” he said. Perhaps the biggest fiscal issue facing the courts will be the constitutionally mandated state assumption from counties of many court costs. “It is just a $200- to $300-million budget item,” Harding said wryly. “We have been working on that and Justice [Charles] Wells [who succeeded Harding as Chief Justice on June 29] is going to be leading the charge to continue working on that for the next two or three years.” The court system will continue to work on ways to accommodate pro se litigants, Harding said, noting that “in 80 percent of our family law cases, at least one of the litigants is unrepresented.. . . These litigants are of concern to the Bar, to the court and to the public.” The Supreme Court has held a symposium and has commissioned studies on ways to assist pro se litigants, he said, adding it is of major concern to the court. “There is nothing in the Constitution that says you have to have a lawyer, but there is something in the Constitution that says you have to have access,” he said. “We have learned they are not a problem, they are our customers.” The courts also are working on improving the justice system for children. “We have greatly improved the delivery of services to dependent children,” Harding reported. “Justice Wells has indicated we are going to study the issue of delinquency and how we can best deal with those issues in our jurisprudence.” The court has underscored its concern for children by granting an hour of administrative leave each week to court employees who mentor a youngster. Harding encouraged lawyers to do the same, adding he and his wife have found it a rewarding experience. With a wry smile, the Chief Justice confessed that in the coming year their mentoree will have him and his wife cracking math books, as the student is taking advanced math. “That’s the reason I went to law school: I didn’t do to well in math,” he recounted. The court’s Fairness Commission will be studying the Baker Act, Harding said, and he also declared 2000 as an ADA year where the courts will working to improve access for the disabled. In the past two to three years, the court has made giant strides in improving education about the courts, particularly through its website, which offers webcasts of court sessions and lesson plans for its “case of the month,” he said. The court has also increased the diversity of its staff and held ceremonial sessions to honor Virgil Hawkins, who was denied admission to the University of Florida law school in 1949 because of his race, and the first 150 women lawyers and first five African American woman lawyers in Florida. “That was an extraordinary event and I’m glad we were part of that,” Harding said. He also took the chance to express thanks to those who helped him during his two-year term as Chief Justice, including Bar presidents Edith Osman and Howard Coker. He also noted that the relationship between the court and The Florida Bar is better than court-bar relationships in almost any other state. Judicial independence and accountability go hand in handlast_img read more