You may know that for about twenty years I have been serving on the faculty of the National Judicial College where judges teach other judges to be judges. The NJC has a fairly high-tech approach due to needing to reach judges from all across America and in many foreign countries. About six years ago the College asked me and five other faculty judges to conduct a seven-week Internet class. Each faculty member is assigned areas of concentration. Mine are Court and Case Management and Judicial Ethics. If you have followed Gavel Gamut recently you may recall the other faculty and I just completed this year’s course.
Now, this week you and I could address the vicissitudes of Hoosier football or the most salacious sexual harassment scandal. Perhaps we could delve into the mysteries of competing religious philosophies or even this week’s almost certain to occur mass shooting. But I know my audience, small though it may be, and I am confident you would prefer to reflect upon the issues I hammered into the student judges via the Internet. Let’s get right to it.
May we start with the simple question, “Why do we even have Courts?” This topic might feel a little broad and somewhat amorphous. So, why don’t we narrow our focus and discuss just one court, say the Posey Circuit Court; What is its purpose?
Posey County government has numerous elements but each part can be reasonably placed in three general categories: (1) Executive, such as the Board of County Commissioners, (2) Legislative, the County Council; and (3) the Judiciary, which consists of two courts, Superior and Circuit.
The Commissioners are hired by Posey County voters to plan and execute short, medium and long-term functions, such as roads, jails and courthouses. The County Council is charged with managing the funding of all county services. I do not mean to ignore the important duties of such officers as the Prosecuting Attorney, the Sheriff, the County Clerk, the Treasurer, Assessor, Auditor and many other public servants. However we are painting with a very broad brush here; general, three-branch democracy is our subject.
Officials who engage in executive or legislative functions are not only allowed to, they are encouraged to advocate for certain policies and positions. Should Posey County have zoning and, if so, what kind? Can Posey County afford to hire more workers, and, if so, how much should they be paid? In county government there are thousands of important and often competing interests and interest groups to be advocated for and against. These are proper functions of those two branches of Posey County government. Therefore, it is altogether fitting that politics are involved. Policies are advanced and the voters decide whose policies they prefer, Democracy at work.
But, what happens when competing interests reach a conflict or an impasse? Where do citizens look to get a problem resolved? Where is there a fair arbiter? And, most importantly, where can citizens go with confidence the arbiter is not biased for or against either side? Of course, it is the Court, HOPEFULLY. However, if the Judge is perceived to be beholding to particular groups, a political party for example, people may fear any decisions the Judge makes is based less on fact than favor.
Perhaps next week you can be regaled with an even more in depth exposition of what I taught the judges about judges who may be perceived as partisan instead of blind to the identities and attachments of the people who have to appear in front of the Judge in Court.