“Independent judiciary is essential to the maintenance of public trust
and confidence in the court system” – NCSC
ProPublica published by Joe Sexton an article titled “Despite exposes and Embarrassments, Hundreds of Judges Preside in New York Without Law Degrees” on June 26, 2017. A review of the work of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct chronicles the costs of a tradition resistant to change.
Granted it was a bit over the top rant but it was justified. The article did get me thinking…where is the most vulnerable ground level spots if some group such as communists, radical Islamics, or any number of wild anarchists wanted to build a ground swell of change, create local chaos or fear, or wanted to begin changing laws and ordinances so that localities might more easily buckle….obvious answer, local judges, city management, officials, and enforcement.
States that do not require law degrees for certain judges according to the National Center of State Courts most often are concerning city courts (especially most often appointed by city or mayor), municipality, probate, justice of the peace, a few land or tax courts, in one or two cases juvenile welfare/orphan courts, and magistrates.
In recent years apparently there has been a change in some states to make sure judicial posts are state-authorized attorneys who have to meet at least minimum standards. However, the list below shows that not all have chosen yet to make certain the judgeships are approved by state standards. This isn’t particularly an indictment against unqualified people who hold some of the positions. Some may in fact be great in their judgeship decisions. It does speak to a need for better standard requirements.
A case can be made especially as the ProPublica article points out for New York that those states that continue to allow political appointees or non-attorney people to sit as “judges” do more often get forced out for bad behavior. If one clicks on any of the states listed below, one finds that the judge ethics boards have a few to several cases every year where untrained judges are forced to “retire” or “never practice in a judicial capacity ever again.”
That is not to say that there are not judges in higher courts that have not been found guilty of crimes because some in the state supreme court and lower have been noted–simply that these uncontrolled, sometimes politically appointed, untrained so-called “judges” sitting on the lowest rung of the ladder are more prone to abuse of power overall.
What better way to gain a stranglehold if a mayor or city council chose to run rough-shod over residents and colluded with local untrained, appointed judges to force fear and compliance?
Just as we have witnessed in the judges who ruled in the “Trump Travel Ban,” a bad interpretation of law based on political motivation or power struggle can have a disastrous effect on the country as a whole. These were supposedly skilled and state approved judges sitting on higher court benches and yet they applied less than ethical methods and decisions or simply misrepresented or communicated their decisions (to be generous) on national security issues which gummed up the works, slowed or stopped better vetting considerations, and potentially allowed terrorists to come into our country. Somehow they decided that their interpretation of law actually was more learned and important than that of the commander-in-chief of the US who had multiple avenues of information available to base his decision upon.
While local judges do not have nearly that degree of authority, they too should have experience in the legal field and in-depth knowledge of the legal justice system in order to better advise towns, municipalities, and cities. They should be able to prepare judgments on cases whether effecting only the community or as a basis for future problems where their actions might be used as a reference. Citizens who come before them for decisions and resolution should be able to feel that the judge gave an informed and unbiased lawfully sound opinion.
Cases involving higher court judges, especially, should be legally sound and unbiased by politics or personal opinions. Those will affect some court case somewhere in the country at one time or another.
Most businesses require personnel to be evaluated yearly. So why should judges not receive the same attention to excellence on the bench? Where is their “skin in the game” if they are only brought up on ethics charges after a battery of complaints? Do they have to attend yearly training courses? Many positions across the business spectrum do require their employees to do so. Are they “graded” for their opinions by the state attorney’s office to make sure their opinions are appropriate and reasonable? Do they receive reprimands for comments on social media – especially given that they are supposed to be non-political? Are they following the law as written or choosing to interpret it according to their own personal viewpoint?
There are a lot of questions on this that of course most of the public has no knowledge or understanding except as they appear before the judge for some reason. The actions or opinions of judges impact those citizens immediately and could possibly affect US citizens and non-citizens every day.
I would think this makes a strong case for better review and transparency of the judicial branch from the lowest rungs of the judicial ladder up to the Supreme Court. It should not require rants in an online blog to get the judicial branch of our government to make sure those who represent the country as judges and even the courtrooms are well-versed and prepared to render opinions and decisions based on our country’s laws not on politics or personal opinion.
Strengths, weaknesses, opinions based on laws especially when brought before the Senate for consideration of open positions absolutely would provide a wider picture and reduce the name-calling, political party politics we have been seeing play out over the first months of the current administration. Having testimonies and highlighting the great records of judges when making an appointment is all well and good. However, those evaluations while not being a strong appointee factor, could assist in ensuring only better quality judges move up the ladder.
No legal licenses required or listed*
Alabama: probate court
Arizona: municipal, justice of the peace
Colorado: municipal (preference given to degree)
Connecticut: probate court
Delaware: justice of the peace
Georgia: probate court, magistrate
Hawaii: land court*, tax court* (administrative judge sends to district court)
Indiana: city court, town court (some districts do require degree)
Louisiana: mayor’s court city-ordinances
Maryland: orphans court
Mississippi: justice court
Montana: city court, justice of peace
New Hampshire: probate court
New Mexico: magistrate court (population areas under 200,000), municipal court, probate
New York: town court, family court (appointed by mayors)
Ohio: court of claims has 3 panel judges assigned by supreme court, mayors court appointed by mayor
Oregon: county court, justice court, municipal court determined by city council
South Carolina: probate court, magistrate, municipal court (appointed by municipality)
Texas: Constitutional County court (under $5,ooo cases versed in state law but no degree required), municipal (varies from place to place), justice of peace (including under $500 fines etc)
Utah: justice court: no degree but yearly justice classes
Vermont: probate court
West Virginia: magistrate, municipal court
Wisconsin: municipal court
Wyoming: municipal court