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Courts must be independent of majority whim

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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I am proud to be an attorney who appears in federal and state courts in most states in the Midwest.

Because of my experience trying cases, I will discuss why it is necessary to have independent judges.

Sometimes individual judges make decisions, and sometimes a group of judges, acting together as an appellate court, makes decisions. These judges must make decisions according to the law as they understand the law—even if they personally disagree with the decision.

The majority of citizens often agree with the courts; however, sometimes the majority disagrees with a legal ruling and tries to punish judges because of those rulings, as happened in Iowa with the Varnum v. Brien decision and subsequent retention election. Judges are designed to be independent so that they can make the decisions that might be opposed by the majority because the majority is not always right.

In the 1950s, for example, the majority of citizens in some parts of the country believed that educating black people and white people in "separate but equal" schools was appropriate. The U.S. Supreme Court, knowing that the decision would be opposed by the majority, reversed this policy of segregation. Without independent judges — judges who are able to make unpopular decisions — our integration of the school system would have relied on the much slower shift in public opinion.

Judges are people just like you and me, and sometimes they make mistakes. However, a majority's dislike of a decision does not automatically mean that the decision is wrong. The U.S. Constitution and state constitutions created independent judges so that they could rule against the majority, when necessary, and be a limit on the majority's power. We cannot take this independence from judges, and we cannot punish them when we do not agree with them.

History may show that they were correct and we were wrong.

JD Haas is a personal-injury attorney in Bloomington, Minn. This is the first of two pieces he has written on the role of the judiciary.


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