March 17, 2000


OPINION

Separation of Powers Essential For California and the Nation

By William G. Paul, President, American Bar Association

California Gov. Gray Davis' recent comments that his judicial appointees should remember who appointed them caused a sensation in legal circles both in California and around the country.

All Californians, not just lawyers, should be concerned. The governor's views are contrary to what every California schoolchild learns about how our country works.

At a recent Washington, D.C., breakfast with California reporters, Davis said judges' decisions should reflect his policies. And if that weren't enough, he said those who cannot do that should resign.

"They are not there to be independent agents," he told reporters. "They're there to reflect the sentiments that I expressed in the campaign."

Gov. Davis: This is exactly how a democracy does not operate.

At the heart of our democratic system of government is the concept of three branches of government, each separate but equal.

The separation of powers, as every schoolchild knows, ensures that one branch of government will not hold sway over another. This very basic American concept, an essential tenet of our Constitution and our governmental system, should be cherished and guarded fearlessly from all who would erode it.

When our country's founders invented the three branches of government, they realized that the judicial branch was the weakest because it had neither the power of the purse nor the power of the military. The founders knew that the power of the judicial branch lies in the trust and faith of the citizenry.

Judges hear millions of cases every year, impartially guided by the rule of law. Countless citizens depend on this impartiality to resolve their disputes in the courtroom.

For a democracy to work, judges must be independent for many other branch of government. Those appearing before a judge in California, or anywhere else in our country, should have the confidence that the court will make fair and impartial decisions based on the law and the merits of the individual case —not based on the political views of a politician.

Gov. Davis needs to remember how American democracy works. California's judges are neither his puppets nor his pawns. California judges should not be taking into consideration the whims of the day, or looking over their shoulder, fearful that a decision might lose them their job.

Without an independent judiciary our nation, and California, will be less than its constitutional promise and far less than our citizens deserve.

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