An Impartial Federal Judiciary

This newsletter is part of our reconstructing American government series. In prior issues, we called for a revamped Federalism, a new public service model, law enforcement reform and decentralizing federal agencies and reforming Congress. This week, we propose a good governance approach to revitalizing our federal courts.

Big Story

The media is focused on court packing—as if the only thing that matters is the ideological balance of the Supreme Court.

As we watch another sordid Supreme Court nomination process play out—this time in the midst of a still-surging pandemic—we are once again distracted. The media grills the candidates about political gamesmanship. The Republicans raise the specter of Democratic court packing and the Democrats accuse the GOP of court stacking. Too often overlooked is the long-term damage of politicizing the federal courts. If every judge is selected for ideological reasons, it will be much harder to view them as independent seekers of truth and arbiters of justice (My Cousin Vinny).

Big Question

What can be done to make the federal courts more impartial, independent and just?

Do we really want the politicization of the Supreme Court to continue? The hypocrisy? The refusal to hold hearings? The ugly nomination process? The personal attacks on nominees? The refusal to answer questions? What will be the long-term impact on the people’s trust in the courts as an institution? What can we do to ensure that future federal courts inspire the kind of impartial respect shown in the closing courtroom scene of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Big Idea

Instead of pushing overtly political schemes to change the ideological balance of the Supreme Court, let’s reassess and reform the entire federal court system from the ground up.

Our founders envisioned the judiciary as the third branch of government, a pillar of our constitutional checks and balances. If it is beholden to political forces, its independence is no longer assured. If it is micro-managed by legislators, its ability to mete justice efficiently and effectively is fettered. If it is unduly influenced by private interests, its commitment to the public interest is abated. We urge reforms to the entire judicial system, ideas we will present in more detail this week. You can learn more about reconstructing government at Civic Way.

Potential Models

World Justice Project (@TheWJP) | Twitter

  • Denmark – with the highest ranking in the World Justice Project’sRule of Law Index, Denmark has a three-tier judicial system with at least two distinctive features: a Special Court of Indictment and Revision to consider disciplinary sanctions against judges and an independent Court Administration unit
  • Netherlands – ranked 5th of 113 nations in World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index (1st in the civil justice system subcategory), Netherlands has a hierarchical court system that, on average, completes a trial in 87 days; its Supreme Court has 35 judges
  • Syracuse University – the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) shows how a small entity can use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gather, analyze and distribute comprehensive information about federal staffing, spending, laws and practices, including federal court information

Other Views 

Civic Way System

The Civic Way system for strengthening governance helps leaders see civic problems, fix those problems, own those solutions and track civic progress. In short, Civic Way’s advisors can help civic leaders improve public institutions. To see our guidelines for successful governance, check out Civic Way.

Call to Action

Email us at BMelville@CivicWay.Org to share your thoughts or suggestions about Civic Way or this newsletter.

Civic Way is a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to helping communities revitalize democracy and governance from the ground up.  If you want to be part of the Civic Way network or learn more about our work, please visit Civic Way.