|The Wichita Eagle|
Posted on Fri, Dec. 02, 2005
Chief justice concerned about attacks on judiciary
TOPEKA, Kan. - Decrying continued attacks on courts nationwide, the leader of the Kansas judiciary said Friday the rhetoric could undermine public confidence in the legal system and some of the talk comes from "people who ought to know better."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland said people accuse judges and appellate courts throughout the nation of being "activists" when they don't like rulings in high-profile cases.
She cited a 2003 ruling by Massachusetts' highest court, striking down a state ban on gay marriage, and court decisions that allowed doctors in Florida to remove a feeding tube from Terry Schiavo earlier this year.
But McFarland said courts aren't supposed to take polls or consult public opinions in ruling on the law, and other justices said their duty is to uphold the rule of law, not do what's popular.
"Judges should not put their fingers up and see which way the wind is blowing," McFarland said. "That's at the heart of judicial independence."
McFarland said courts have always faced some criticism but, "You're getting some wild statements from national leaders, and that's something we haven't had."
"Unfortunately, we're in a time where people who are in some very responsible positions and who shouldn't be in the category of extremists are stating extreme views," McFarland said. "We've got some people who ought to know better making irresponsible statements."
McFarland spoke during a workshop for reporters, editors and judges sponsored by the National Center for Courts and Media. She and the other six justices participated in a question-and-answer session.
She and other justices wouldn't comment on pending cases or on legislative proposals to rein in the judiciary that followed Kansas Supreme Court rulings earlier this year forcing lawmakers to increase spending on public schools.
Some legislators believed the court overstepped its authority because it told the Legislature specifically how much to spend to meet its constitutional mandate on school funding.
"We don't live in a vacuum. We all have our personal opinions," said Justice Eric Rosen. "But our duty and obligation is to the law."
McFarland said people were upset with the Massachusetts decision because it overturned existing law. But people were upset in the Schiavo case because the courts wouldn't write new law to save her life as she lay in a vegetative state, McFarland said.
"Courts have to have the respect of the vast majority of the public, that if they have a problem, they'll get a fair deal," McFarland said.
Justices Carol Beier and Marla Luckert worried that many Americans aren't well-educated about the courts and how they work. Luckert noted that Kansas judges are encouraged to speak to community groups and high school students.
"The educational process has to be intensified," Luckert said.
ON THE NET
Kansas Supreme Court: http://www.kscourts.org
National center: http://www.judges.org/nccm