New Jersey State Bar Association - The voluntary Bar Association of New Jersey, serving members since 1899.

For Immediate Release
03/06/2014 

Kate Coscarelli
Sr. Director, Communications
732-937-7548 

NJSBA Task Force on Judicial Independence Announces Public Hearing Dates - April 1 in New Brunswick; May 15 in Atlantic City

NEW BRUNSWICK: The New Jersey State Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Independence has set public hearing dates in the coming weeks. Those interested in testifying should send their name, contact information, and a brief statement to taskforce@njsba.com.

On behalf of the Task Force, one of its co-chairs, the Hon. Dorothea O.C. Wefing, a retired state Appellate Division judge, released the following:

"The New Jersey State Bar Association has created a Task Force to examine the issue of judicial independence. The members of the Task Force are retired judges, law professors, practicing attorneys and members of the lay public, all of whom have distinguished themselves in their fields. The goal of the Task Force is to produce a report that will contain recommendations with respect to preserving the independence of the judges of this State. The Task Force is wholly independent of the Bar Association, which will not control or influence its proceedings or conclusions.

The Task Force has concluded that it should hold a series of public hearings to solicit the views of both the legal community and the community at large with respect to this critical issue. These hearings will be held on the following dates, at the stated locations:

  • Tuesday, April 1, New Jersey Law Center, New Brunswick, 4 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 15, NJSBA Annual Meeting, Borgata, Atlantic City, 1 p.m.
  • Rutgers Law School, Camden, date to be determined
  • Seton Hall Law School, Newark, date to be determined

The purpose of these hearings is to seek purposeful recommendations as to whether our current system of judicial appointment and reappointment may be improved, and if so, how. The hearings are not intended, and will not be permitted, to provide a forum for individuals who may be disgruntled with their contacts with the judicial system or with the composition of the judiciary.

The term “judicial independence” can mean different things to different people.  It is thus essential that those who wish to appear and testify before the Task Force appreciate the manner in which the Task Force understands the concept of judicial independence and intends to apply it.  (See below)

The Task Force encourages the public to attend and participate at these hearings.  The Task Force looks forward to hearing the views of interested groups and individuals as to how to protect and preserve the independence of the judiciary of this State. It is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the public discourse on these important questions.”

A definition of the term “judicial independence”

The phrase “judicial independence” is sometimes used as a rhetorical device to suggest that judges, their decisions, or the judiciary as an institution, are not subject to criticism or to democratic accountability; others use the phrase to suggest that the concept represents nothing more than judges trying to advance their own economic self-interest. The Task Force emphatically rejects such a definition or understanding of the judicial independence it seeks to protect.

Free citizens have an inherent right to criticize governmental actions; members of the judiciary have no immunity from such criticism and the Task Force does not seek such immunity for them. Similarly, members of the judiciary are accountable for their actions and the Task Force does not seek to forestall such accountability.  Members of the judiciary are accountable to the law itself, to higher courts reviewing their decisions, and to the legitimate authority of administrative agencies acting in accordance with powers that have been delegated to them. Further, courts are accountable for their decisions to the authority of the Legislature to overrule, by validly enacted laws, judicial decisions that interpret existing law and the common law. Finally, courts are, and must be, accountable for their constitutional decisions, for the people of this State have the ultimate authority to amend our constitution or to adopt a new one.

The Task Force’s understanding of the concept of judicial independence starts with the role of the judiciary in a representative democracy: to fairly resolve, in accordance with the law and the facts adduced in proceedings open to the public, disputes involving life, liberty, property or reputation of private or governmental parties.  The absence of an independent judiciary creates the specter of such disputes being resolved by force or the exercise of political power.

The ultimate authority of the judiciary rests upon the confidence of our citizens that their controversies and disputes, no matter their nature, will be decided by a judge who will decide such matters in accordance with the law and the evidence, without fear of any political, professional or economic retaliation. 

Inevitably, some of those controversies and disputes will pose novel questions, to which the answer is not immediately clear, and controversial issues, as to which people of good will can reasonably disagree. Such controversies and disputes must, nonetheless, be decided by the judges charged with the responsibility of doing so and the decisions ultimately reached can stir strong reactions, both by citizens and politicians. The Task Force members are as protective of the right to express such disagreement as they are of the judicial right to decide such matters without fear of consequence. Such reactions and disagreements, however, should not deteriorate into personal attacks upon the integrity or intelligence of members of the judiciary or seek to retaliate against them for their decisions.