Hard Stand on Judicial Autonomy

Article excerpt

The mighty walls guarding judicial autonomy may be crumbling, but Bill Paul, as the 1999 American Bar Association president, is determined to shore up the damage.

Championing the ABA's 346,000-members, Paul says he'll work to protect the independence of judges and to ensure the separation of powers.

"It's a serious threat to our government," the Oklahoma City attorney says. "It's a very poor way to treat the third branch of government." As a growing concern for bench and Bar members, the issue of judicial independence was brought to the forefront by Bob Dole's 1996 campaign move. The Republican presidential candidate called for the impeachment of a federal judge who suppressed evidence of 80 pounds of heroin and cocaine in a drug trafficking case. But Dole wasn't alone in demanding the impeachment of Harold Baer Jr., with New York's Southern District, and when President Clinton's Press Secretary Michael McCurry intimated that Baer should resign, many saw it as the beginning of an ominous trend. As did Paul. "This gets all caught up in the political process and prevents a third and equal branch of government from properly functioning," Paul says. "It undercuts the judicial system." But the concern runs deeper than campaign politicking. In 1996, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny J. White, who ordered a new death-sentencing hearing for a convicted murderer, was ousted by voters after a hard-charging campaign led by conservatives. That same year, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, berated 1st Circuit judges for disallowing rape evidence in a sentencing hearing. Mixing judges and politics at the state level has also created uneasiness. The National Organization of Women and the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats in 1996 moved to unseat a circuit court judge after he reduced a sentence for a defendant who had pleaded guilty to killing a man because he was gay. Closer to home, the Oklahoma Bar Association in November denounced a survey submitted by Oklahomans for Judicial Excellence to all resident Bar members asking for a ranking of state judges. The questions, says the OBA, were slanted toward judges who disfavor large punitive damages awards and who conclude cases on dispositive motions. …