Ballot initiatives threatened independence of courts
By Ralph J. Cappy - Chief Justice of
Penn. Supreme Court
Nov. 16, 2006
While public attention was focused on the power
shift in Washington in last week's election, something else was going on at
polling places around the country that went almost unnoticed.
several states considered constitutional amendments that could have weakened,
politicized and, in one case, outright emasculated their state courts.
am grateful to say that these ballot initiatives failed. But, the threat to
democracy that they represent remains very much alive.
A growing pattern
of attacks on the courts across the nation has gained tremendous momentum in
recent years and it is important for all citizens to be aware of it.
the name of making courts more ''accountable,'' certain groups and individuals,
driven by special interests and rigid philosophies, have launched campaigns in
many states to smear and unseat individual judges or entire courts. These
critics insist that their opinions, and theirs alone, are correct, and courts
should recognize no other.
There have been impeachment drives, recall
movements and ugly political campaigns along with a growing pattern of violence
against judges. Any judge who issues an unpopular but legally sound ruling can
become a target.
This year, far more than ever before, we saw ballot
proposals to limit the powers of the courts, to strip jurisdiction from the
courts and to intimidate judges.
In South Dakota, a ballot proposal would
have provided for a citizens' grand jury with powers to authorize lawsuits
against judges and even indict judges for their rulings.
In Oregon, a
ballot proposal would have wiped out statewide elections for appellate judges in
favor of electing them from politically carved judicial districts. Had it
passed, most or all of the state's appellate judges would have been swept from
In Colorado, a proposal would have imposed 10-year term limits on
judges. That, too, was aimed at getting
rid of incumbent judges.
In all the media coverage of the election, there
was little mention of these ballot proposals. In my view, much more attention
should have been given to them. Judges across the nation were watching these
elections with grave concern.
The voters in South Dakota, Oregon and
Colorado wisely recognized the dangers in the proposals and rejected them. They
voted to protect their courts, as they should. They clearly wanted their courts
to remain accountable — but to their constitutions and the rule of law, not to
special interests. In those elections, the voters were well-informed and
It is vitally important that the courts everywhere in
America remain accountable, yet strong and independent, as they have for more
than 200 years, and that judges remain free to make decisions based on the rule
of law, and that alone, uninfluenced by any form of outside pressure.
courts in Pennsylvania are open and accessible to citizens of every race, faith,
nationality and socio-economic background. They exist to protect our rights and
our freedom. They should never be taken for granted.
Ralph J. Cappy is
chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.