Remarks by Justice Peter Zarella
Thank you Chief Justice Sullivan. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today. The Chief Justice has recognized the personal journey that many of you have made to achieve this milestone. I urge each of you, if you have not already done so, to thank those who have helped you along the path…without their reassuring support the way would have been even more difficult.
You stand on the threshold of your legal career. In a few minutes you will recite your oaths as an attorney and as a Commissioner of the Superior Court, and open the door to the worthiest of professions. As Samuel Johnson said, "knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." We trust that your time in law school, profitably spent, has provided you with both kinds of knowledge and that you are well schooled in the rule of law.
For it is the rule of law that all Americans hold sacred - rich or poor, black or white, educated or not - we all expect that we will be treated equally under the law. This is not America's goal for its citizens, it is America's promise.
Short weeks ago, this court participated in its annual Law Day ceremony, the theme of which was "Celebrate your freedom - independent courts protect our liberties." In the world in which we now live, never has the critical consideration of our judicial heritage been more timely.
We take for granted that the cornerstone of this heritage of fair and impartial justice is our system of independent courts. We take that concept for granted, that is, until we are forced to come face to face with places where the fabric of society has been ripped aside and a judicial system paralyzed.
As I read of recent developments in post-war Iraq, I was struck by an almost incidental mention of the hope that finally, with the functioning of two courts in the city of Baghdad, everyday life would gradually return to something approaching true "everyday life".
I recalled that often our judges and the branch's administrative personnel host foreign judges, from both democratic and non-democratic countries, who visit to discuss and receive information on the specifics, the "how", of our independent courts. Whether in war or peace, it is commonly recognized that an organized justice system must always underline what the world calls "civilized society".
At this year's Law Day ceremony, Chief Justice Sullivan observed that while the preservation of independent courts is everyone's duty, it is a responsibility that is fulfilled more easily in concept than in practice. Outrageous crimes and unsympathetic parties can stretch the reaches of public passion. Against a tide of overwhelming public opinion, the concept that independence of judicial decisions must be protected can be sorely tested. It often falls to attorneys to actively defend the fundamental principle that judges must be free from public pressure in order to fulfill our constitutional obligation to make independent decisions, however unpopular those decisions may be.
Most of us well removed from the immediacy of law school would have a difficult time reciting the facts of Miranda v. Arizona. Convicted of kidnapping and rape, Ernesto Miranda was surely an unpopular figure to the law abiding citizens of Arizona. But the negative public opinion attending that case did not discourage a courageous decision from being issued. Chief Justice Earl Warren stood tall in the face of calls for his impeachment. Today the concept of Miranda rights, imbedded in American arrest procedure, is universally recognized.
Unfortunately, the concept of judicial independence is not as well understood. It is often misinterpreted to be for the benefit of judges. It is not. Rather, judicial independence protects all of us. It is to ensure that decisions concerning individual rights of expression, assembly, religion, and more, can be protected. It is to ensure that decisions will be made based solely on the rule of law.
We are fortunate that Connecticut does not elect its Justices of the Supreme Court or Judges of the Appellate and Superior Court. In election states, campaigns have been waged against particular judges, not because they violated their sworn oaths to make fair determinations based on law and facts, but because their decisions ran counter to majority opinions. An extremely unfortunate fallout in those states can be that close to election time, judges seek to avoid the thorny cases that will surely cause trouble. We can only imagine how difficult and complicated running for office, with the attendant issues of fundraising and appearance of influence, must be.
But in non-election states, such as ours, there can be other issues that implicate judicial independence. During the judicial appointment or reappointment process those involved in the procedure, or merely observing, may become preoccupied not with measurements of respect for the rule of law, but with how a potential candidate is likely to decide a particular issue with which he or she has not yet been faced, or with the thought processes that went into a specific decision. To protect the rule of law, judges must be free to make unpopular, but correct decisions. As Americans we have the right of free access to the courts, and free access means access to courts which are free from influence and fear of retribution.
Critics often raise - and fairly so - the need for public accountability for judicial decisions. As public officers, judges are, and should be, accountable. But the concept of accountability does not mean that majority public opinion rules. What judges must be accountable for at all times is the fair administration of justice.
In your legal career there will be times when you will be disappointed, both personally and on behalf of your clients, in some judicial decisions. But you can also assure your clients that Connecticut's system of independent courts provides built-in protections of accountability. Virtually all court proceedings are open to the public. Written decisions are available for public inspection and discussion. Appeals, as of right in most cases, require that a court of appellate judges review the legal accuracy of a decision, ensuring a measured second look at decisions outside the complicated arena of a trial courtroom.
The responsibility to defend the independence of the courts is for all Americans. The reality is, however, that it is attorneys who have been schooled in the rule of law, who contemplate and discuss at length the terrible results of a world without that protection. Knowing that the erosion of judicial independence erodes individual rights, we recognize our duty to protect the independence our courts.
As an attorney, how will you do this? Sometimes there is simply a public misconception about the parameters of a court's jurisdiction to entertain certain issues, or a lack of expertise in considering the broad implications of a hoped-for decision. As an attorney, you will do your part in helping the public, and your own clients, understand our decisions and the boundaries of the law. Sometimes there are unfair attacks upon a court, a specific decision, or a judge. Criticisms of judgments are an integral part of our democratic process. But to be valuable, the criticism should be of the judgment not the judge. As an attorney, you will do your part by publicly defending against unwarranted criticism. In undertaking these responsibilities you will often be afforded help by our bar associations. State and local bar associations have since their inception provided an effective avenue for advocacy for our court system. I urge you to join and participate actively in the initiatives spearheaded by your colleagues.
Throughout the history of our country and our state, attorneys have played a vital role in ensuring the individual rights and personal freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and access to the courts. Those and our other individual rights have been safeguarded in large part by protecting the independence of the court to enter judgments protecting those freedoms. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, "We can get Justice by doing Justice." Do justice for your clients, do justice for our judicial system.
You are about to enter a noble profession. To uphold our liberties with the honesty, courage and respect that they deserve is today, as it has always been, the worthiest of pursuits. I extend to you, on behalf of the Justices of the Supreme Court and the men and women of the Judicial Branch, the best of luck in your endeavor.
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State of Connecticut Judicial Branch