Allowing people to sue judges over unfavorable rulings could have grave consequences for the integrity of the judicial branch. But that's the trend that might sweep the country if a certain ill-conceived initiative is successful in a few states.
The Judicial Accountability Initiative Law, or JAIL, will be on the ballot in South Dakota in November 2006. If the constitutional amendment passes, residents who believe they were wronged by a judge's ruling or actions could sue. Judges generally have immunity from such lawsuits.
A special grand jury consisting of registered voters over the age of 30 would decide whether the claim has merit and whether the judge used flawed reasoning, disregarded evidence or acted unethically. If so, a judge could be subject to fines or jail time. Three strikes, and he's out of office.
In another strange provision, the legislature would have to find a home for the grand jury that is farther than 1 mile from any "judicial body," whatever that means.
This is completely unnecessary. All states have measures to rein in wayward jurists. Many state constitutions, including Ohio's, have provisions for the removal or impeachment of judges.
Along with South Dakota, supporters have set their sights on Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico in 2006. Chapters of JAIL supporters and versions of the amendment exist for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Two Californians, Ron Branson and Gary Zerman, crafted this initiative after a personal setback. Branson, in particular, tried in 1999 to take his fight with Los Angeles over a parking ticket all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The pair told The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee that victories in other states will "wake the sleeping giant" of Americans' resentment against judges and raise the $1 million to propose the issue successfully in California, their ultimate goal.
Just when you think you've seen the frontier of idiocy, someone finds more to conquer. This process would poke a hole in the tradition of an independent judiciary. That's one aspect of democracy that cannot be found in countries with dictatorial regimes.
Should every ruling be subject to the whims of 25 people? Could judges serve honestly and impartially if every ruling could mean the loss of their jobs? Under such a law, judges could be sued not only for such blatant violations as graft but also for highly subjective standards, such as "sophistry." This would be a system ripe for abuse.
Further, America's system of checks and balances works. The right to appeal has been around for centuries.
And if a judge breaks the law, he's arrested, tried and punished. Think Donald S. McAuliffe, the former Fairfield County municipal judge who burned down his own house for the insurance money. He was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.
In Ohio, if local or state judges consistently behave badly or make sketchy rulings, residents can vote them out of office. And if an Ohio judge violates the ethical standards set by the bar, anyone can file a grievance with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. According to this state's disciplinary counsel, Jonathan E. Coughlin, the other states have similar procedures.
The counsel relies on trained investigators, lawyers and its subpoena power. If a grievance has substance, the counsel presents evidence to a three-person panel at the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, which decides whether the case should go forward.
Then a separate three-person panel from the board, none of whom is from the judge's appellate district, hears the case and makes a recommendation for punishment. That finding goes for review in front of the entire 28-member board, made up of lawyers and lay people. If upheld, the decision is submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court, which either agrees or alters it.
This exhaustive procedure is funded by the bar-registration dues paid by all lawyers; no tax dollars are involved.
Only a conspiracy theorist would believe that all of those people involved in all of those processes are in league to keep corrupt and incompetent judges on the bench. Wherever this crackpot measure crops up, Americans should reject it.