Stimulating and Frustrating

By Watson, George | Judicature, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Stimulating and Frustrating


Watson, George, Judicature


Stimulating and frustrating by George Watson Bench Press; The Collision of Courts, Politics, and the Media, edited by Keith J. Bybee. Stanford University Press. 2007. 230 pages. $29.95.

Brench Press emanates from a collaborative effort of the Maxwell and Newhouse Schools at Syracuse University to bring scholars, judges, and journalists together at a conference on judicial independence. Selecting four judges (Harold See, James Graves Jr., John Walker Jr., and Joanne Alper), four journalists (Mark Obbie, Dahlia Lithwick, Tom Goldstein, and Andiony Lewis) , and two scholars (Charles Geyh and Alan Tarr), editor Professor Keidi Bybee assembled an interesting array of contributions that both stimulate and frustrate those interested in issues of judicial selection, media coverage of the courts, civic education by the courts, and public perception of the role of the courts.

If the judicial system were a person, it might be diagnosed as having dissociative identity disorder, a condition that similarly afflicts "we die people" as we negotiate our competing expectations for the courts: justice or law enforcement? Judges independent from political pressure or ones more responsive to the public will? The "right" results or the "correct" process? Apparently, we want it all-laws that ensure justice, independent judges in touch with public opinion operating in a system of laws that reflect the same, and proper legal reasoning that results in desired outcomes.

A modest poll designed to inform and stimulate the conference attendees revealed this identity disorder in the varied and conflicting responses. Perhaps its small size (not reported but probably less dian 350) figured into Professor Bybee presenting only cursory results radier dian devoting a chapter to what could have been a highly informative and interesting discussion of the difficulties facing judges, journalists, and scholars in their efforts to elevate civic discourse on this complex subject.

Most often discussed in the book are matters of judicial selection, including Justice See's overview of selection approaches, Professor Tarr's article on die hyper-politicization of state judicial elections, Judge Alper's description of her experience with Virginia's legislative selection process, and Judge Walker's observations on the federal bench. These essays that may encourage readers to see the judicial glass as either half empty or half full stimulate thinking anew about the virtues of different selection processes. Yet they leave us wanting more in-depth comparisons across methods, suggesting how one approach to judicial selection may be superior to another.

Educating the citizenry

Consensus is evident among the contributors that both the media and the courts could do a better job of educating the citizenry about the role of the courts and the processes by which courts reach decisions. Specific concern and criticism regarding "results-oriented legal journalism" is expressed by die journalists, with die exception perhaps of Tom Goldstein, whose sympathetic and insightful contrast of journalistic and judicial cultures leads him to conclude diat "bridging the wide gap between die bench and the press will not be simple." Journalists gravitate to novelty, conflict, and disclosure; judges adhere to precedent, eschewing public conflict and disclosure.

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