Definition of 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.