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The last several weeks have been difficult times for America’s judiciary. Issues related to the security of courthouses and the people who serve in them have become more prominent due to recent attacks on judges and their families. We have also witnessed overheated rhetoric in response to recent high-profile cases. In light of these and other developments, this may be the appropriate time to consider the value and importance of our judiciary to America’s democracy. As a nation, it is time to address the atmosphere in which our courts operate, including the threatening rhetoric and intimidation directed toward the judiciary. While legitimate criticism of judges’ decisions is a time-honored tradition in American political discourse, threatening to seek the removal of judges for decisions rendered or otherwise make them “answer” to politicians is something else entirely. Regardless of how one feels about the specific circumstances of individual cases, the role of the judiciary is clear. Federal and state judges are charged with weighing the facts of a case and following the applicable law, responsibilities that most judges carry out with great dignity and sensitivity. Today, we are faced with confusion and misinformation among the public about the proper role of the courts, a fact that some of our least scrupulous political leaders have been eager to exploit in order to intimidate the judiciary into bending to political, partisan or ideological whims. If our system of government, the most envied in the world, is to remain that way, the escalation of threatening rhetoric intended to intimidate the judiciary needs to be replaced with careful analysis, thoughtful leadership and measured responses. Egregious threats Indeed, judges have been the target of the sort of threats and anger typically reserved for the most dangerous among our society. In one egregious example, a critic of a particular Supreme Court justice quoted Josef Stalin on how to deal with objectionable jurists: “No man, no problem,” he said. Keen observers of history will note that Stalin’s full quote was even more ominous, given Stalin’s method of dealing with opposition: “Death solves all problems: no man, no problem.” While these statements are totally unacceptable in American political discourse, other actions such as the call for impeaching judges are equally damaging. The standard for these critics is not the constitutional standard for impeachment-high crimes and misdemeanors-but rather, disagreement with a particular judge’s ruling. Both of these approaches, which are tantamount to overt threats to a judge’s personal safety or job security, cross the line from healthy debate into fear and intimidation. This has no place in our democracy. Some may ask why this is so important. After all, rhetoric is just that: words. What is the harm? Threatening rhetoric of this sort is dangerous because it feeds into the ever-worsening atmosphere in which our courts operate. In many respects, this atmosphere is as destructive a weapon against the independence of the judiciary as any individual assailant. It eats away at and alters the public’s perception of judges and the justice system until finally the judiciary is neither understood nor respected. An ‘us v. them’ attitude For some, legitimate skepticism and rigorous criticism have given way to cynicism. Too often, judges are characterized as political tools, not the independent leg of our democracy that they are. Our national rhetoric and, sadly, some of our government’s actions, have combined to create an unsavory “us v. them” attitude toward our judiciary. We can see it in efforts to strip jurisdiction over certain categories of controversial cases from federal or state courts, or in state judicial election campaigns that seek to remove judges who made unpopular decisions or elect judges deemed most likely to ensure particular outcomes in future cases. And we can hear it in some of the excessively harsh and threatening verbal assaults on judges’ decisions broadcast on radio and cable news channels and repeated again on the Internet. The American Bar Association is steadfast in its opposition to actions such as these. We oppose them because we know that without our independent judiciary, the much touted but little understood organizational principle of American democracy, the separation of powers, could not exist. To protect the independence of the judiciary is not to protect an empty principle. Judicial independence exists for the benefit of the people, not for the personal benefit of judges or the lawyers who appear before them. Maintaining the independence of the judiciary makes it possible for judges to protect and enforce individual rights-even when doing so is contrary to popular opinion-and for the judicial branch to carry out its role in the system of checks and balances so artfully devised by our nation’s founders. To be independent, the judiciary must be free of intimidation and manipulation from the legislative and executive branches. Congress and the courts must interact with respect, restraint and common purpose. Respect among these co-equal branches of government is vital. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The independence of the judges is . . . requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals.” Robert J. Grey Jr. is president of the American Bar Association.

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