“All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous Judiciary.” – Andrew Jackson
“We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and our property under the Constitution.” – Charles Evans Hughes
Most lawyers agree that an independent judiciary is a cornerstone of our system of government. We may have differing ideas of how to achieve this independence, but we can agree that the judiciary’s perceived independence lends weight to the perceived legitimacy of judicial decisions.
Your Board of Governors recommended proposed legislation that changes the length of terms for Wisconsin Supreme Court justices. This proposed legislation resulted from more than a year of time-consuming study by a bipartisan task force. The task force members conducted interviews and studied other state court systems. Vigorous debate took place both within the task force and the Board of Governors. The final proposed legislation represents our attempt to facilitate and safeguard the independence of the judiciary.
Reaching a consensus concerning the terms of supreme court justices can be, and in fact was, subject to different opinions among the many well-intentioned and hard-working members of both the task force and your Board of Governors. However, there are other less controversial actions we can take that indirectly foster both the strength and the independence of our judiciary. Many of our 70-plus county courthouses need repair and refurbishing. In my own hometown of Green Bay, a bipartisan effort led by retired Judge Vivi Dilweg resulted in a beautiful restoration of the Brown County Courthouse in the 1990s. Lobbying by Brown County Bar Association members was instrumental in accomplishing this restoration.
An independent judiciary should be and is a bipartisan issue on which all can agree.
More important, we must continue to ensure that not only bricks and mortar be adequately provided but also that the people in our judiciary be adequately compensated. Judges’ pay continues to lag behind the pay of private lawyers having similar talent and experience. In addition, we must ensure that our assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and judicial clerks receive adequate remuneration. Otherwise, the legitimacy of our adversary system suffers, indirectly harming our judiciary.
An independent judiciary should be and is a bipartisan issue on which all can agree. It was deemed paramount by a 19th-century Democratic president, Andrew Jackson. It was deemed indispensable by a 20th-century Republican presidential candidate (and eminent U.S. Supreme Court Justice), Charles Evans Hughes. It is a banner under which we can all march. Please join me in lobbying our state legislators and local officials to both facilitate the independence of our judiciary and adequately fund the judicial system in which it operates.