Judges have always faced threats because their decisions can send people to prison, overturn laws and settle enormous financial disputes.
What’s different and worse today is the obnoxious way politicians use judges as partisan punching bags.
It needs to stop.
President Barack Obama in 2010 broke tradition by scolding the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling he disliked as the justices sat in front of him during a State of the Union address.
That was tame compared to President Donald Trump’s aggressive and regular attacks on the judiciary. Trump called the courts a “joke” and “laughingstock,” demanded resignations when rulings didn’t go his way, singled out jurors for scorn and claimed a judge was biased because of his “Mexican heritage.”
More recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, ominously warned Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh not to reverse Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion 50 years ago: “You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price,” Schumer said at a rally in March outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, after a draft decision was leaked. “You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
Even judges are setting bad examples. Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman was belligerent and refused to answer questions as a defendant in an open records case last week. Gableman wildly claimed without evidence that a Dane County judge was biased and trying to “railroad” him.
Crowds of people have protested outside the private homes of U.S. Supreme Court justices in recent months, in apparent violation of federal law intended to prevent the obstruction of justice.
Is it any wonder that public trust in the judiciary is slipping when elected officials so obnoxiously bash our courts? Such fierce criticism, especially from elected officials, also increases the risk of violence.
A man saying he was upset about looming court decisions on abortion and guns was arrested this month outside Justice Kavanaugh’s private home with a gun and knife. The man is accused of plotting to kill Kavanaugh.
In Wisconsin, a man released from prison brazenly shot and killed retired Juneau County Judge John Roemer on June 3 near Mauston, about 75 miles northwest of Madison. Roemer had sentenced the man to six years behind bars.
President Joe Biden signed a law Thursday extending round-the-clock protection of U.S. Supreme Court justices to include their families. The bill earned swift bipartisan support, which was welcome.
State officials should similarly ensure judges in Wisconsin have adequate security. The state should consider creating a special unit to respond to serious threats. The team could include law enforcement with training in how to diffuse mental health crises.
Judges and jurors must be free to deliberate and make decisions without fear of violence. That’s the only way the third branch of our government can properly function as a neutral arbiter.
The politicians need to back off and respect the difficult decisions our court system must make. Judges are supposed to follow and interpret the law without favor. Judges have a responsibility to protect individual rights, rather than catering to public pressure.
That’s a very different role than the executive and legislative branches of our government play. Presidents, governors and lawmakers represent constituents and often act on the will of the majority.
Nothing is wrong with criticizing a judge’s decision. Judges disagree with one another in dissenting opinions all the time. Issues such as abortion and guns can be emotional and profoundly impact people’s lives. Our courts can and should improve in lots of ways to guard against political and financial influence as well as racial bias.
But intimidating judges with threats to their safety undermines the American system of impartial justice. Moreover, constantly tearing down the integrity of our courts — especially for political reasons — risks a breakdown in civil society. Without public trust, our courts will struggle to peacefully settle disputes, leading to more conflict and chaos.
Teaching civics in schools should be required so young Americans understand the difference between judges and lawmakers. Wisconsin should rethink judicial elections, which force nonpartisan judges to behave like partisan politicians, taking sides on controversial issues and raising millions of dollars from special interests.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, a citizen member of our Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board, has given our board insight into the difficulties and risks judges face, especially at the county level where crime and punishment is closest to the people.
The judiciary deserves more support for the difficult job it does, and for the independence it requires to make fair decisions in a free society.
– Wisconsin State Journal