Once upon a time, I believed judges could do things. I thought they could rule on motions and even continue trials. Sadly, the world is not as it once seemed.
I sat in chambers last month and listened to a seasoned judge talk about how he’d love to continue a trial but couldn’t because “they” were getting onto him about granting too many continuances. This is a man who can, and probably has, imposed the death penalty at some point. He clearly has a boss. Probably more than one. His bosses tell him how to do his job. Given the fact judicial retention elections are not exactly close calls, his bosses aren’t the voting public. Some group of people I don’t know is able to tell him how to do his job.
I see judges having bosses as a big problem. I don’t oppose higher courts reviewing lower courts’ rulings because I get to read why they do what they do. They have a building and offices and courtrooms. They sign their names to decisions. When some mysterious controlling force known only as “they” is telling a guy in a robe how to decide my client’s case, that’s a different story altogether. I can’t talk to them about it because I don’t know who they are. I can’t plead my case to them. What happens in court is being shaped by forces I’m not aware of and can’t control. It’s scary stuff.
I see the problem extending far past the judiciary. More or less every person with whom I discuss politics feels that no single person should have any real power. Everyone seems happy knowing that “they” have all the power. Power needs to be vested in committees or entities because institutions make people feel comfortable. A single politician may be bribed, but hundreds of them are okay. I’ve yet to speak with someone who thinks their congressman would make a good dictator. Somehow giving a whole bunch of idiots the same incredible power to share makes it better.
The root of the problem is that with big government, big business, and big everything else, there’s still a boss. In institutions, everybody has a boss. Always. There’s going to be someone at the top with all the powers you’re scared to give a single person. It might be the politician’s rich donor or the judge’s domineering spouse, but there’ll be someone. The questions isn’t whether we should give all of the power to a single person or group of people. That’s inevitable. The real question is whether we want to know who those people are.