Last summer marked my 20th year as a judge. Today marks my 56th birthday. You know that means I have a lot of cause to reflect on the passing years.
Not that I did, though. Reflect, that is. Not until I heard about Transparency International’s annual report on which countries are least and most corrupt. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a look at being on the bench for a couple decades.
I was only 35 when the Governor appointed me to the court. Like all new judges, I needed training. That’s one thing the California judiciary does well. Classes on all sorts of legal topics are created by judges for judges, and I attended as many as possible. The judge instructors would invite students to contact them later if anything came up that someone needed help with. I took them up on the offer all the time, calling these more experienced judges about cases I had that fell in their area of expertise.
After a while I started teaching classes for my fellow judges (from judicial ethics to historical jurisprudence), and served on statewide committees on issues that help keep the judicial branch running. Committee work and teaching put me in contact with hundreds of judges up and down the state.
A few years ago I started getting phone calls from people asking me for advice on their cases. I was happy to help, but wondered why so many judges were calling. Then it hit me.
I’d become an old guy.
It’s not that I was old age-wise. Rather, I was old judge-experience-wise. I’d been around long enough that people saw me as someone who might have experience with something they were facing for the first time. So I do what judges do for their colleagues: I help them figure a way to make the tough decisions that judges face every day.* In fact, I handled one of those calls from a judge just last night after dinner.
It’s not really that I’m a sage (as the title suggests), but I am getting senior.
The Role of the Courts in Avoiding Corruption
Transparency International’s corruption index ranked Denmark first while Somalia and North Korea are tied for last place among the countries studied.
Among the various aspects of government the study considered, they looked for “judiciaries that don’t differentiate between rich and poor, and that are truly independent from other parts of government.”
Impartiality has been the goal of the judiciary for thousands of years:
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15.)
Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. (Deuteronomy 1:16.)
The qualities of an independent judiciary are in the Bible too, just not as explicit.
Moses … chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves. (Exodus 18:24-26.)
Moses was not only the chief judge sitting alone on their version of a supreme court, but was the chief executive for the Israelites as well, a kind of president. Yet in this passage we see that Moses allowed the lower court judges to act independently of interference, whether from a higher court or the non-judge leaders of Israel.
This is the way courts are supposed to work today.
Courts are to be impartial concerning who is in the lawsuit or facing criminal charges, and they are to be independent of interference from other parts of government. The rich shouldn’t expect to win because they have some sort of importance or influence, and the executive and legislature should have no say in how a judge decides a given case.**
After 20+ years on the bench, I find these guides – impartiality and independence – to be timeless. Their simplicity is elegant and their purpose powerful, and in all it is Christ-like.
Thinking on these things is a good way to spend my birthday.
*By the way, if anyone tells you that judges have it easy, don’t believe it. I love my job but I also know that most people couldn’t handle hearing the awful things judges hear every day and yet are called on to make rational decisions over. There are a lot of jobs I am not at all suited for and would muck up before I even started, but I can do this one because this is a job I am suited for somehow. Not everyone is.
**Some societies have not only allowed the country’s leaders to dictate to judges how a case is to be decided but the judges have wholeheartedly gone along with it, such as in Nazi Germany. Countries like that end up at the bottom of lists of corrupt nations.