Incivility Is Eroding Our Justice System and the Rule of Law

By Johnston, William D. | Judicature, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Incivility Is Eroding Our Justice System and the Rule of Law


Johnston, William D., Judicature


At its core, the American Judicature Society stands for the fair and impartial administration of justice. Please join me, for a few moments, in reflecting on how incivility is eroding our justice system and the rule of law.

It all starts, of course, with the selection of judges. Whether county, state, or federal, the selection process can be one that is civil and that promotes trust and confidence in our executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Or the process can be highly politicized and even personally demonizing of its participants, causing incalculable damage to our justice system, and, in turn, to the rule of law.

Likewise, criticism of sitting judges can be civil, constructively taking issue with the reasoning of judicial decisions, the timeliness of those decisions, or the judge's temperament. Or, instead, criticism can be highly politicized and personally demonizing. Witness the recent characterization of the remaining four Iowa Supreme Court justices as "enemies of God." This from a popular radio talk show host and a state politicai party official, both of whom are unhappy with the outcome of a single decision by the en banc Iowa Supreme Court and with the failure of the justices to heed misguided calls for them to resign or face impeachment. In my view, this substitution of empty yet dangerous rhetoric for what should be civil public discourse only harms what should be a common, apolitical undertaking: the pursuit of equal justice under the law.

Finally, I would be remiss if I were not to observe that our system of justice can be undermined by what lawyers and judges themselves say in addressing pending cases. Lawyers who, in briefing and/or oral argument, gratuitously accuse one another of lying (sometimes dressed up as "misrepresenting," "deceitful," or "disingenuous"). …

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