The Judicial Independence and Accountability Task Force

Article excerpt

AJS' watchdog seeks to maintain the delicate balance between independence and accountability which permits our system of justice to function effectively.

Because of their importance to its mission to promote the effective administration of justice, the American Judicature Society has always been attentive to the complementary concepts of judicial independence and judicial accountability. As reflected in recent Judicature editorials, tension among the branches of government at the federal level and in many states, already high, continues to increase. Subtle (and not so subtle) threats have been directed at the judiciary, both at the state and the federal levels. At the same time, some judges and courts seem to have forgotten that, in a system of separated but interdependent powers, restraint and dialogue are essential if cruder instruments of accountability are to be avoided.

Concerned about this state of affairs and its potential impact on the administration of justice, early this year AJS created a Judicial Independence and Accountability Task Force. The Task Force is chaired by Stephen Burbank, a longtime AJS Board member and David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Its diverse membership includes judges, law professors, practicing lawyers and lay people, all of whom believe in the importance of preserving a system of justice that, although imperfect, is justly regarded as one of this country's finest achievements. The Task Force has three goals: to monitor events bearing on judicial independence and accountability at the federal and state levels; to respond to unwarranted attacks on the judiciary and to highly visible situations demonstrating a failure of judicial accountability; and to educate the public on the relevant issues.

The Task Force has chosen initially to monitor seven issues bearing on judicial independence and accountability:

* The Feeney Amendment and other federal and state restrictions on judicial discretion in sentencing;

* The investigation of Chief Judge James Rosenbaum of the District of Minnesota and other similar legislative initiatives under the banner of "oversight";

* Pending and threatened action in states that would limit or eliminate the courts' rule-making authority;

* The ability of federal judges to consider comparative and international legal materials in determining the content of domestic legal rules;

* The federal judicial discipline process;

* The use of recess appointments of federal judges; and

* The use (and threatened use) of jurisdiction stripping statutes to reduce federal judicial power. …