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October 06, 2023 Appellate Judges Conference

AJC Chair's Column

By Hon. Laurie McKinnon, Helena, MT

I want to thank the Hon. Jacqueline H. Nguyen for her time spent as Chair during 2022-2023, as well as her consideration for each of us, her willingness to accommodate how each of us wants to contribute, her diplomacy, sensitivity, and her thoughtfulness. I look forward to seeing her at the 2023 Washington D.C. Appellate Judges Education Institute (AJEI) Summit, November 2-5. I also want to thank Amy Dasgupta, staff for the Judicial Division, who has answered my relentless “on-boarding” questions and has always been available to help. The AJC is very fortunate to have Amy.

AJC is made up of an amazing group of judges and attorneys who share a genuine commitment to maintaining the integrity and independence of the judiciary. Our government institutions are being challenged; indeed, a healthy separation of power appears teetering and a peaceful balance of power tenuous. Civility is frequently absent within and between the branches; respect for institutional knowledge vanishing; and maintaining control and blind adherence to an agenda, at the expense of representative government, seems to be the rule. When control of rulemaking is consolidated in one group, legislation is passed pursuant to agendas and the give-and-take of representative government is compromised. Representative government is designed to preserve the marketplace of ideas essential to a democracy. Hence, it becomes the judiciary’s job to protect for this exchange of ideas, to guard against the dilution of individual rights, and to ensure the backbone of our social contract–the Constitution–is not violated. And, importantly, while the judiciary has the final say of what our constitutional rights are and mean, courts are ill-equipped when they are thrust into political dialogue. Courts, after deciding difficult questions such as a statute’s constitutionality, are frequently made to look as though they have “legislated from the bench” or decided a case based on which political party facilitated a judge’s appointment. True, political interests may affect some judicial decision-makers, but most of us take seriously our oath and understand the importance of the rule of law and of protecting our constitution.

It is important that the judiciary fosters a healthy, fair, and productive relationship with the media so that the public can understand and know that judges and attorneys are protecting their rights and following the rule of law. All of us share the same commitment to an independent and strong judiciary, and to fair process. Its why we are here. And it is also the thread that runs through each of us, binds us together, and will help the judiciary withstand attacks on its independence. But we cannot lose sight of educating the people who are impacted by our judgments–we must educate them about what we do, why we made the decision we made, and why they really need a nonpartisan and independent judge even though they might not have liked the decision we just made. Every interaction–whether in writing or in an oral pronouncement–is a teaching moment that preserves the judicial branch and its integrity. We are here for the people and we are answerable to them–as they know.

The integrity and independence of the judicial branch is the biggest challenge we face in our democracy today. It is the challenge, in my opinion, AJC and the Judicial Division must make a top priority. Our work at AJC and the education provided to judges and attorneys through AJEI is critical to ensuring the judicial branch is strong, independent, and provides the check on actions taken by the other branches which violate our constitution–particularly those threatening the separation of powers. It is paramount that the judiciary be independent of the executive and legislative branches, and that citizens understand how desperately important to our democracy preserving these functions are. Our judgements are only as good as the respect people have for its judiciary. If there is no respect for the judiciary, and we are seen as political or partisan, then there will be no respect for our orders. And we have no armies to enforce our orders.

My mission for AJC is to enhance the education of judges, attorneys, and our citizens which helps bring us one step closer to a stronger independent, nonpartisan, and stable judiciary, which must serve as a pillar of democracy. But I think this has always been AJC’s mission. I am so fortunate to have an incredible group of people to work with, who are so collegial, but still stand up for their opinion as to how to accomplish this mission.

I look forward to the year ahead and what we can accomplish. 

Hon. Laurie McKinnon

2023-2024 Chair, Appellate Judges Conference

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