Constitution Day Panel Discussion Highlights Threats to Judicial Independence
Threats to judical independence are not hard to find, but perhaps the greatest of them is lack of understanding by the pub- lic about what judges do.
That sentiment was uttered by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer in “A Conversation on the Constitution: Judicial Independence,” a May 2006 event in which he, along with fellow Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (retired), took questions from high school students and discussed the ways that the Constitution safeguards the role of judges so that they in turn can safeguard the rights of minorities and those with unpopular views.
A DVD of the event served as the launching pad for a Constitution Day panel discussion in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom on Sept. 15 with three distinguished guest panelists: The Honorable Frederick D. Smith, Chief Judge, Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida; The Honorable Stephan Mickle, District Judge, U.S. District Court Northern District of Florida; and Fletcher Baldwin, Jr., Chesterfield Smith Professor and Director, Center for International Financial Crime Studies. Sharon E. Rush, Irving Cypen Professor, moderated the discussion.
Chief Judge Smith addressed the problem created by politicians and others labeling members of the judiciary “activist judges” in an effort to intimidate them. He cited the treatment of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, who presided over the Terri Schiavo case and was villified when he allowed the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube to be removed in March 2005. Smith called Greer a “role model for the rest of us to resist pressure and obey the rule of law.”
Smith said the role of the judiciary has been “de-mystified,” leading to a lack of respect for judges among members of the public, which is less likely to accept their decisions. “We have to get out there and engage in the debate,” Smith said.
Mickle stressed the importance of judicial independence in a democratic society for maintaining balance between the major- ity and the individual citizen’s rights in court. He said the fear of how their decisions will be received in the media should not effect judges’ decisions.”I would like to think I would make the same decisions whether or not that threat was there,” Mickle said.