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September 09, 2019

How Courts Work

Courts and Legal Procedure

Judicial Independence

Before the American Revolution, courts in the colonies were seen as instruments of oppression. Juries could be locked up until they reached the "right" decision. Judges were seen as puppets of the king. In fact, the Declaration of Independence criticized King George III for making "judges dependent upon his will alone for the tenure of their offices and the amount and payment of their salaries."

This experience convinced the founders that Americans needed independent courts to be protected from unreasonable searches, rigged trials, and other examples of overreaching government power. To guarantee rights like freedom of speech and freedom of worship, and make the rule of law a reality, the founders knew that judges had to be servants of law and the Constitution, not the political bosses, not the media, and not special interest groups. The Constitution protected judges from political and public pressure by

  • specifying that they hold their office "during good behavior." This meant that their appointments are for life.
  • specifying that their salaries cannot be diminished during their tenure. This prevents Congress from retaliating against judges by cutting their pay.
  • making the removal process difficult (only on "impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors")

Throughout American history, the independence of the judiciary has protected individual liberties and prevented a tyranny of the majority. Examples include extending voting rights, ending segregation, protecting the average citizen from unwarranted government intrusion.

Emerging democracies look to our system of an independent judiciary as a model. They are all too familiar with the "telephone justice" of dictatorships, in which a judge adjourns court to wait for the call that tells him or her how to decide the case.

Judicial independence assures that cases will be decided on their merits. Decisions are based on what is right and just under the law, not what is popular at the moment.

>>The Role and Structure of Courts
>>The Role of Judges
>>The Role of Juries
>>Grand Juries
>>Trial Juries
>>Judicial Independence

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