Judges: Impartial and Independent?

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Raveena Mital's picture

Greetings Friends!

I am back again as I shift from book to book, article to article and paper to paper on different law fields! Indeed the pressure on readings is becoming greater by the day in the JD but that is also because we are going into depth on what some of the core arguments in law are. Moreover, simply reading from textbooks is not enough. Case analysis, current events and fictional movies about the courtroom are also important learning elements in this area since they can really give a glimpse into the life of a lawyer.

One key notion that I was not aware of before is the importance of political science knowledge in the legal area. I had always envisioned politics to revolve around the government officials and ministers; law I thought was more of a private practice that simply took the pre-written rules and applied their relevancy in different cases. But lawyers have a much more active role than that; they are in many instances the ones to understand their jurisdiction’s constitution, political power and public needs, initiate legal proposals that meet them and argue for amendment on existing laws that violate basic human rights principles. Hence in this way, the judiciary is an important governmental arm that (given effective separation of powers) works with the legislative branch and executive branch in order to preserve the rule of law and control of power.

Out of all the legal experts, judges are the ones regarded as of the highest prestige as they play the role of the ultimate decision maker in courtrooms. As we discussed in our Ethics class, although it is highly respected that everyone practices their own religion and believes in certain Gods, the law cannot use “God” to reach solutions in cases. This is because religion is a very personal and subjective field; if it is used to resolve conflicts among different types of people, then equality would be hard to administer.

Therefore justice lies in the judges’ hands, and they are bound to make the “right” decision after hearing both sides of the story. Their judgments are final and conclusive; any objections to their statements, although may be appealed at higher courts, are still determined by another set of judges. This makes it understandable that people look up to judges as possessing God-like power to come up with a fair solution to human problems. But ultimately we cannot also forget that at the end of the day, judges are also human beings and thus are bound by their own emotions, feelings and personal lives.

Then how can one differentiate the behavior of judges to act in an immortal manner despite being mortal? This is largely through the careful training and code of ethics published for every jurisdiction’s judiciary. Although each code differs slightly in its requirements, they all require judges to maintain two core principles in their conduct: that is, being impartial and independent. In other words, judges have to remove all forms of prejudice, and emotions from the parties once the case is on trial and only rely on the presented evidence to make a judgment. They have to mentally cut off all kinds of family ties or pressures, which may hinder them from acting independently and making a decision only based on the facts. Yes, it is fair to argue that often times both the prosecution and defense fail to present the exact truth or embellish certain elements in favor of their clients; although judges may direct the jury to investigate further or use certain “tests” when the facts seem questionable, they cannot rely on what is “not there” to understand the situation.

Moreover, the type of the jurisdiction can also affect the judges’ role. In civil law, judges can still play a somewhat active role with the statutes. However, in common law, the judges’ role is much more passive; he/she simply sits back to hear the case, looks at the relevant case law and then makes a judgment that complies best with the equal treatment of all.

As I read all the different code of ethics for judges, including how they are able to restrict themselves from joining political parties or publishing strong views about a certain position, I got thinking: is it really possible for judges to cut themselves out from their personal views in the courtroom? As individuals we all have certain beliefs and values, and although we may not show them explicitly by not joining communities with similar thoughts, we cannot completely neutralize our mind from inside. Then how hard is it for judges to maintain their impartiality and independence in the courtroom and how do they maintain it? Also, would it make sense in certain situations for judges to simply give up their position in cases where independence seems hard to maintain? For example, if I were a judge having to make a judgment in a case where my loved one was convicted of a crime, would I be able to hear the prosecution’s side with full independence? Although I would try to remain neutral, I feel in this situation it would be fair if I give my seat to another. This is because it is not merely a matter of whether I can maintain independency, it also equally important for the public to have the belief in me that I can deliver justice. Public confidence would be low if they realized that I was hearing a loved one’s case.

What are your views on judges’ independence and what they should do in situations where their family ties are at stake? This is a crucial discussion factor in the legal field as it involves so many stakeholders.

Would love to hear your views!