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Fading trust in courts must be restored

By: Associated Press//October 7, 2021//

Fading trust in courts must be restored

By: Associated Press//October 7, 2021//

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The installation of a new district attorney for Eau Claire County brings a new chapter to the beleaguered office. We hope Peter Rindal does well.

This isn’t just a hope for the people of Eau Claire County and those who need justice in our courts. It’s a hope for the people who work in that office and have been through an extraordinary few months. The events that led to the resignation of former District Attorney Gary King could not help but leave a mark on those who work in the office.

That fact may make Rindal a good choice to serve out the remainder of King’s term. As a deputy district attorney in the office, Rindal is well-positioned to know the effects of the past several months and to empathize with those who remain. It’s not so much that the other candidates could not, but that it’s clearly easier for someone who has worked alongside the office staff throughout the time in question.

For now, Rindal is saying the right things. When he was sworn in on Friday, he said the work “never stops” for the office. He pledged to fill the position with “integrity, humility and compassion.”

“I’m well aware that this job comes with very serious and heavy responsibilities,” he said. “I’m under no delusion that this job is going to be easy.”

Notably absent were any comments from Rindal about the 2024 elections, when voters will decide who holds the office beginning in January of the next year. That’s appropriate. While it would be naïve to think Rindal has not privately contemplated his plans, laying them out in public moments after being sworn in would have been ill-advised.

Public faith in our institutions has been shaken over the past several decades. While the hits to the judicial system are generally more recent, that branch has also lost some of its previous standing in the public’s eyes.

Some of that is probably inevitable. Public opinion fluctuates, and it’s a mistake to read too much into any one poll. But the trend is clear. And, as people’s faith in the courts has declined, those involved with it simply must avoid self-inflicted wounds.

Such a need applies to the local levels, of course, but much more to those who are much more in the spotlight than local prosecutors, attorneys and judges are ever likely to be. It is far more likely that a negative impression will work its way down from the higher courts than the reverse, after all.

Recent comments suggest the members of the U.S. Supreme Court understand that risk. But we’re not sure they understand why it exists. Justice Samuel Alito recently insisted that the Supreme Court is “not a dangerous cabal.” Amy Coney Barrett, the court’s newest member, spoke up to insist the court is “not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”

Barrett and Alito seem to believe a comment to a friendly audience will — or should — end criticism of the court. The problem is that, even if their assessments are correct, the days when a justice could simply make a statement and expect it to be taken at face value by the majority of people are gone. They were pushed aside by Congress’ increasingly partisan fights over the court’s composition. They were thrown out when the Senate held open a seat for months on end during one administration, only to move with breakneck speed to fill one in the waning days of the next.

The justices themselves have done their own damage as well. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said during his confirmation hearing that he was the victim of a conspiracy and that “what goes around comes around.” While people draw different conclusions from his comment, his words were clearly ill-chosen. The same can be said for former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 2016 comments about the possibility of a second term for then-President Donald Trump.

Those involved in the court, at any level, are human of course. They are fallible. They will make mistakes. But it is essential that they strive to learn from both the mistakes made by themselves and by others.

The courts have long been an outlier, the one area of American government broadly trusted by most. We hope the local officers of the court uphold that trust, and that they continue to strive to be worthy of it.

– Eau Claire Leader Telegram


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