There are some countries where the only rational reaction to the police is to run, fight, or bribe, and where the courts are nothing but an extension of a corrupt government. Luckily, America is not such a country… yet.
21 year-old Michael arrived in Phoenix as a refugee from the 30-year genocidal war in Sudan. His story is part of a tragedy that has destroyed 2.5 million humans, and made refugees of 4 million more. Sudan’s legal system has become a system of torture, and the courts simply puppets of a regime bent on annihilation of black Sudanese.
Michael was hit by a car in Phoenix while riding his bike home from work. He was badly injured in the accident, but was given a ticket by the officer who responded to the accident. He was bewildered and frightened; the car had hit him and he had done nothing wrong. What was going to be done to him when he responded to the wrongful citation?
His lawyer explained that he could request a hearing before an
impartial judge, who would rule only on the evidence presented in
court. But wouldn’t the judge punish Michael for challenging the
officer’s citation? No. But surely the police would seek retribution?
No. Surely he would have to bribe the officer? No. Should he contact
local politicians to fix the problem? No.
Like so many from a country where the rule of law and civil society
have been undermined, Michael could hardly believe that he enjoyed such
rights and freedoms in our legal system which we very often take for
granted. He was excited to be able to tell his view of the incident
without fear of bias or retribution. In the end, Michael prevailed, but
he worried for weeks afterward that something bad would happen to him
as a result of his victory. So many in the world can only dream of the
fair, impartial courts, free from the corruption of backroom politics
that we enjoy.
But that system is under threat. Our courts are under political attack
and political retribution for unpopular decisions is swiftly becoming
the norm. Take for instance the case of Vermont judge Edward Cashman
who gave a sex offender a sentence thought by many too light and was
politically pressured into increasing the sentence. The Governor suggested Cashman
resign, several lawmakers spoke of impeachment, and many in the media
threatened and belittled the judge for following the law. Cashman finally increased the sentence, folding to political pressure.
The attacks come in many
different disguises, but all are aimed at lessening the independence
and integrity of the third branch. In Arizona, we have seen attacks on
the merit selection system, demands for Senate confirmation of judicial
appointments (even though a well-balanced merit selection committee already vets the qualifications of nominees), and attacks on the Arizona Constitution’s preference for
the courts to create their own procedural rules. We have seen
jurisdiction stripping legislation, threats to unseat judges based on
the outcome of certain cases, and massive underfunding of the judicial
system in a misguided effort to ‘starve the beast’.
We have to resist these attempts to move our legal system toward
something closer to that of Sudan. Consider Michael’s prolonged fear
and anxiety that the system would not treat him impartially over a
minor traffic ticket. Imagine yourself at the mercy of political hacks
on the bench when a serious legal issue arises in your life. We have an
enviable system that is worth preserving; do not allow the barbarians,
who want their will to outweigh the rule of law, have their way.