The American Judicature Society and Judicial Independence: Reflections at the Century Mark

By Geyh, Charles Gardner | Judicature, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

The American Judicature Society and Judicial Independence: Reflections at the Century Mark


Geyh, Charles Gardner, Judicature


A logical starting point in a symposium commemorating AIS at the century mark is with judicial independence-a sweeping topic with a complex architecture that gives structure to the AJS mission. The many and varied contributions that AJS has made to the administration of justice over the past one hundred years can best be understood and appreciated as means to further the overarching objective of promoting an independent and accountable judiciary.

The American Judicature Society's name is emblematic of the burdens it bears, the benefits it brings, and the challenges it confronts in the twenty-first century. It is not the "Judges are so cool, I can hardly stand it" Society or the "Justice: Wheeeee!!!" Society. It is the Judicature Society- a name with all the marketing punch of the "Eat Your Kale" Consortium. Therein lies the burden, but also the benefit: Sometimes, people need to eat their kale. AJS generates information vital to the administration of justice without regard to political splash or media fanfare. As a consequence, it has served as an indispensable resource to every thoughtful court reform movement of the past century. But that, in turn, implicates the challenge: In an era when good-government organizations compete for scarce resources, getting noticed can be the key to their survival. And getting noticed is not easy when issues critical to the health of AJS are often more tedious than titillating.

Thankfully, we need not disseminate "Dare to be Dour" buttons to acknowledge AJS achievements. We can tell the AJS story, in its centennial year, through this series of articles. And that story is anything but dreary, for it tells the tale of a small organization with an unpronounceable name that has changed the face of American justice.

A logical starting point in the AJS story is with the issue of judicial independence, a sweeping topic with complex architecture that gives structure to the AJS mission. "Judicial" tethers independence to judges. Judges can be conceptualized as atomized individuals deciding cases or as a group collectively comprising the judicial branch of government. As individuals, judges include a sprawling array of adjudicators-state, federal, trial, and appellate. Their jurisdictions range just as widely: general and specialized; foreign and domestic; Article I and Article III. Collectively, the judiciary serves a host of roles, as administrator, rulemaker, disciplinarian, lobbyist, spokesperson, and sometimes, involuntary scapegoat.

"Independence," in turn, is defined as freedom from influence or control, which implies unfettered autonomy. "Judicial," however, modifies independence in ways that limit the word's construction with reference to the purposes independence serves individually and collectively. In relation to judges individually, independence arguably insulates them from the influence or control of interested outsiders who could interfere with judges' efforts to uphold the law, adhere to due process, and reach just results ("decisional," or "decision-making" independence).1 As to judges collectively, independence buffers the judiciary from legislative or executive branch controls that could encroach on the judiciary as a separate branch of government or institution ("institutional," "branch," or "administrative" independence).2

Unfettered judicial independence does not serve these purposes. Rather, absolute independence would liberate judges to disregard the law, due process, and justice, leaving them accountable only to their own preferences or priorities. And it could morph the judiciary into an imperial, rather than a coequal, branch of government by immunizing the judiciary from the interdependency of checks and balances. Independence, then, must be qualified by accountability, making the perennial challenge to strike a balance in which judges and the judiciary are independent enough to serve the goals of independence, but not so independent as to undermine those same goals.

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