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EDITORIAL: Judicial independence matters

['"Scales of Justice" statue representing the Roman goddess of justice personifying moral force. (Photo via wikimedia commons)']
Justice should never be influenced by politics. — Stock photo

It was an astounding back and forth: the chief justice of the United States and the president of the United States, chipping back and forth about the independence of American judges.

First, the president complained about the actions of what he termed an “Obama judge.”

Justice John Roberts responded in a statement, saying, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. …What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.

“That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

The president chipped back on Twitter, maintaining that there were, in fact, “Obama judges.”

Nothing like having the head of state question the professionalism of a nation’s judiciary.

Luckily, we haven’t reached that point in this country. Hopefully, we never will.

Certainly, federal and provincial governments have appointed judges they know and like; former politicians have cruised effortlessly into the judiciary in ways that make the stomach churn.

The difference, hopefully, is that they are good jurists first.

Because free countries need an independent judiciary, not mouthpieces for one side of the political spectrum or the other.

Entrenching a judge to protect their independence is one thing; entrenching them to protect and enshrine their political bias is something else again.

The Canadian Judicial Council puts it like this: “Judicial independence is paramount in the Canadian judicial system. The Canadian Constitution provides that the judiciary (the judges) is separate from and independent of the other two branches of government — the legislative and the executive. So, while the government’s role is to create laws for Canadian society, a judge’s job is to interpret those laws. It is important to remember that the courts do not make new laws; they make decisions based on existing laws that the government has passed.”

And independence is crucial; “Judicial independence means that judges are not subject to pressure and influence, and are free to make good decisions based solely on fact and law.”

That’s why judicial appointments are long — to ensure that judges can’t be bought with future promises. It’s not meant to allow a government of one stripe or the other to taint the judiciary for years after the government in question is defeated.

Entrenching a judge to protect their independence is one thing; entrenching them to protect and enshrine their political bias is something else again.

When the legislative branch of government impinges on the judicial side — telling police who to arrest, detain or to investigate, picking judges not just for their legal aptitude but for their clear adherence to your political cause — you’re leaving the checks and balances of democracy behind in favour of the strictures of authoritarianism.

We’re lucky in this country — politicians aren’t supposed send the police to your door, and kangaroo courts don’t send people to prison for trumped-up political reasons.

That’s worth defending.

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