Judicial independence means that judges must be free to decide cases fairly and impartially, relying only on the facts of the specific and the applicable law. It means that judges should be protected or immune from political pressure, legislative pressure, special interest pressure, media pressure, public pressure, financial pressure, or even personal pressure. It means those things because we are a "nation of laws". My philosophy is that a judge's decisions should be based solely on the evidence properly presented and the law which applies. I make decisions fairly and impartially and I am conscious of avoiding my personal biases or personal feelings about the outcome of any single case.
Judicial independence goes back to the U.S. Constitution. The country’s founders worked to protect the court system from undue pressure. The founders knew that it takes fair and impartial judicial decisions to protect our rights—and to uphold the Rule of Law. Independence distinguishes the third and co-equal branch of government--the Judicial Branch-- from the Legislative and the Executive branches. Judges are unique. Judges are not beholden to and don't represent any constituency.
We judges work hard to make fair and impartial decisions, to protect the rights of individuals, and to uphold the Rule of Law; despite that effort, we face mounting threats to the impartiality of our court system. With the recent state budget cuts, we judges must handle our increasing court obligations with lesser and fewer resources. There is an increasing gap between what we do in the court system and how the public views our work.
As a result of continuing budget cuts, our court system has suffered. We are insufficiently staffed and our technology is woefully behind. Drug courts were not funded in 2011 and Family Courts may be next. It appears that there's a political viewpoint which dictates that programs that are not implemented statewide and are found in our larger, urban court districts (where we have greater demands on our courts simply by virtue of population), should be supported by local government entities, not the State of North Carolina. This kind of thinking may be successful short term politics, but it may have long term ramifications for our justice system. With each budget cutback, we lose tools and time to innovate, and courtroom coverage to permit judges to participate in training and education. And our growing dockets include more people faced with more serious problems and more people coming to court without legal representation. These changes present serious and unique challenges for judges. As all other state employees, we are doing more with less.
Our judges and our courts already face enormous challenges. Because we are elected, we judges face the increasing cost of running judicial campaigns, a necessary cost of running for office if one's election is contested. Fundraising is a reality which puts judges in the uncomfortable position of raising money which leads some people to believe that justice is for sale. On the other hand, judges are acutely aware that the voting public doesn’t feel they have enough information to elect judges who will protect their rights and interests. Misleading and partisan attacks on judges’ decisions are bringing politics into the courtroom. Special interests spend great sums of money to influence decisions and elect judges to serve their narrow interests, not the public interest.
Judicial independence is not meant to protect the judiciary or any individual judge from meaningful accountability. Examination and responsiblity provide a balance which is critical to a workable judiciary where judges can make decisions which may be publicly unpopular, but legally correct. Judges are accountable through our appellate court system and review of unprofessional conduct by our Judicial Standards Commission; answerability is enhanced by fair and open courtrooms and coverage by unbiased and interested news reporters.
I do not suggest that the bench should be insulated from feedback, particularly from constructive criticism. “Criticism and debate of judicial decisions are a healthy-indeed a vital-part of America’s political and governmental discourse and are protected by the First Amendment." I believe that if America’s judiciary is to remain healthy, vigorously autonomous, and able to perform its constitutional functions without improper influences, it must be immune to attacks that seek to influence judicial decision-making.
Hopefully, no one expects judges to be perfect, or to please everyone. That’s why there are mechanisms to hold judges accountable if they make decisions that are unsupported by law or act unethically. Rulings can be appealed up to the courts of appeal. Laws can be changed by the legislature. Wrongdoing and ethical violations can be punished. And in North Carolina, judges are ultimately accountable to the electorate.
I strongly believe that judicial candidates should avoid making the types of statements that are common in campaigns for legislative or executive offices. Certainly the Judicial Canons prohibit us from making public statements about our cases and decisions. Making commitments to voters about what one will or will not do after being elected is what politicians do when they run for legislative or executive office. In my opinion, judicial candidates should avoid making promises in the form of declarations about how they will decide a particular case, or a class of related cases, or issues. In addition, while a candidate for judicial office is free to talk about his or her own qualifications for the bench, he or she is expected to avoid attacking opposing candidates in an aggressive manner. In doing this job, each judge must be prepared to put his or her personal opinion about a law aside and rule based on what the law is and what the evidence is--whether it is consistent with the judge's personal opinions or not. That's what we mean by the Rule of Law.
These restrictions are called for by the very nature of the judicial office which requires that we not prejudge any situation. Judges decide cases as they are presented and we are required to approach decisions in an impartial manner--with an open mind; we must strive to be aware of and set aside our biases and prejudices and to be competent in understanding other cultures. Indeed impartiality may be the very essence of the "good judging."
In evaluating a candidate for judicial office, it is critical to examine his or her credentials: What kind of law did the candidate study and practice and for how long? Was his or her success rewarded or recognized by her or his peers? Did she or he work to contribute to the growth of the legal profession and reach back to younger, less experienced lawyers? Has the candidate demonstrated a commitment to the community in which he or she lives? Is the candidate capable of making prompt and fair decisions? Does he or she demonstrate a strong work ethic? Does the judge work long hours and appear in court when and as expected? Does she demonstrate commitment to the growth and education of the judiciary and legal profession? Does she strive to be a better judge and better person?
I am committed to making prompt, fair and impartial decisions based on the law and facts presented. After a 26 year career in private practice, I continue to study the law and have taught law to other judges. I work hard to balance my courtroom obligations with participation in statewide and local activities designed to enhance the legal profession and the judiciary. And I continue to stay connected to and active in our community.
I decide the cases that come before me independently and impartially. I've never recused myself from a case because of my personal feelings about any particular legal issue or claim for relief. I treat all persons who come into my courtroom with respect. And each day I work to be a better judge than the day before. I want the public to know me, my work ethic and my commitment to an independent, fair and effective justice system.