Preserving the Rule of Law Through Judicial Independence: A Law Day Challenge by William S.Sessions, Law Day Chair
William S. Sessions, Law Day Chair
American Bar Association
Law Day presents a unique opportunity for judges and lawyers to retell the story of the law and its role in America's democratic adventure. The many planned events enable us to help the public renew its understanding of the rule of law and the functioning of our independent courts that give meaning to the rule of law in our lives.
As lawyers, we have a special role in explaining and defending the rule of law. It is our challenge to engage the public, to help them understand and support our system of law so that the spirit of the law may be strengthened and revitalized. Nowhere is this challenge more critically important than in helping the American public understand and appreciate the importance of truly independent courts and the role they play in preserving the rule of law.
The American people may have been exposed to theory about the rule of law in Civics 101, but it is our responsibility as lawyers to help them recall that this was at one time a revolutionary concept for which people were willing to put their lives and fortunes on the line.
Our Declaration of Independence rang loud with the word that railed against King George III, charging that he had usurped the rule of law in favor of arbitrary and capricious policies. Two of the most vociferous accusations directly dealt with courts, alleging that the King had "obstructed the Administration of Justice" and had "made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries." In short, the actions of George III corrupted the intent of laws to secure the people in the living of their lives in a free society.
It was precisely because of this history that the framers of the Constitution took pains to insulate federal judges from partisan political pressure by giving them life tenure during good behavior and providing that their salaries could not be reduced during their tenure.
The framers were very wise. Throughout American history, there have been periodic surges in the number and harshness of attacks on our courts. Generally, these attacks have come about because judges have properly done their job: they have administered the law without fear or favor, perhaps incurring unpopularity while upholding the law.
For example, a recent report of a task force of the Constitution Project's Courts Initiative (Defending Justice: The Courts, Criticism, and Intimidation, 2000) points out that today troubling kinds of criticism of courts include:
- Threats to judges' lives and safety;
- Threats of impeachment or removal from office;
- Threats amid pending cases;
- Misleading criticism;
- Judicial discipline as a from of criticism; and
- Threats of electoral defeat.
These attacks are made because narrowly focused special interests find it easy to stigmatize a judge for an unpopular but principled decision. The ultimate remedy is to educate the public, so that they understand the importance of independent courts, and understand that this particular kind of demagoguery undermines the rule of law.
We must use the occasion of Law Day to convey our professional belief in the legal system, and its role in keeping America free.
Our challenge is to help the American people understand all that the law does for them, and strengthen their allegiance to it. I know that we are up to that challenge.
Law Day gives us a good platform for public education efforts of this sort. It enables us to reach out to teachers and schools, to the media, and to the public.
Sessions is a former director of the FBI and former Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, resident in the San Antonio Division. He now practices law in San Antonio.