Opinion | Tony Jones: Above the law
What is the deal with judges? As with doctors and clerics, we expect them to be paragons of virtue, imbued with honesty, integrity and wisdom, but more often nowadays it seems that (surprise!) they’re just regular people like the rest of us. And with that regularity comes all the fallibility of humanity.
Take for instance the former-Summit County judge who threatened his stepson with a rifle. I suppose that we’ve all made errors in judgement when disciplining our children, but his actions were a little much, something that might result in you or I being thrown in the hoosgow. But after having his wrist slapped for that incident, he found himself in yet more hot water when he let his inside voice out during hearings related to a domestic relations case and for using “intemperate” speech in reprimanding attorneys in his courtroom for a different case.
I wish I could say that example of judicial bad judgement and the resulting inconsequential discipline is an outlier, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some of us may recall ethical issues with Colorado Supreme Court justices that have been exposed over the last few years. These include overspending in outfitting their new offices, sexual harassment of staff in their agency and dubious contract awards. There was of course a process for addressing these concerns, a process managed by the Supreme Court itself. Yes, self-regulation of ethical or criminal violations, an honor system of sorts. That system’s apparently been pretty forgiving of lapses in judgement or violations of rules or regulations though, as there has been a paltry number of judges disciplined, privately or publicly, for their missteps. Our judge in Summit County has the dubious distinction of being one of those few to have been publicly reprimanded.
Given all these issues we’ve seen in Colorado, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that justices on the highest court in the land aren’t immune from lapses in judgement or have been victims of their own human fallibility too. As transgressions by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have shown, relying on that body to self-regulate their actions isn’t working all that great.
At least in Colorado there’s been an effort to address these issues, the legislature and the judicial branch having both proposed reforms to address concerns with the courts and judicial discipline. But don’t hold your breath in regards to the U.S. Supreme Court as there is no indication that there will be any meaningful reforms any time soon. From the congressional perspective, Republicans have no desire to tamper with their conservative majority on the court. Democratic ideas on the issue centering around stacking the court sound more like a plan to flip its ideological bent than to address these ethical concerns. And as with any legislative change to how the government sets rules for itself, there’s always the possibility that those rules will change when the partisan makeup of the governing body shifts. So, if Democrats change the court makeup under the guise of ethics reforms, who’s to say Republicans won’t do the same the next time they can do so, and the highest court in the land becomes an ideological seesaw in the process.
Real ethics reforms and nonpartisan regulation of the Supreme Court need to be instituted, especially as these are lifetime, nonelected government positions with incredible power and authority over citizens’ everyday lives. It would seem that the low hanging reform fruit would be clear and succinct guidelines on what’s reportable in the form of gifts. We should require specific reporting to a nonjudicial branch entity of any gifts from any person to justices. This would also include gifts or endowments to relatives of the justices as well.
And while we’re at it, should we address the lifetime appointment aspect of this? Perhaps instituting term limits of fifteen or twenty years on Supreme Court justices should also be considered to ensure that there’s a horizon for how long a justice will be on the court. They are supposed to be nonpartisan, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Impeachment could help keep judicial political activism in check and negate the need for term limits. But given the seeming impossibility of actually removing high level politicians from office via that route, I don’t have much faith in it.
No one is above the law, and this should especially apply to those whose job it is to adjudicate and enforce the law. Cell phone videos, body cams and investigative journalism have begun to make clear how the law enforcement sausage is made in some, but certainly not all, cases. For years the truth in that sausage making has been hidden behind a curtain but now, as that curtain starts to draw back, we’re seeing that while most of us aren’t above the law, some of us float perhaps a wee bit more above it than the rest of us should be comfortable with.
Tony Jones' column "Everything in Moderation" publishes biweekly on Thursdays in the Summit Daily News. Jones is a veteran of the IT industry and has worked in the public and private sectors. He lives part-time in Summit County and Denver. Contact him at email@example.com.
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