man opening huge gate to reach freedom
Poll finds most judges have felt outside pressure to rule a certain way

By Ed Cohen

More NJC alumni than not say they have felt pressure to decide a case a certain way. But all say they have resisted the pressure.

Our emailed Question of the Month for January asked judges, “Have you ever felt political pressure in connection with one of your decisions?” A total of 517 judges replied and the majority, 54 percent, said they had.

“Everyone has, otherwise they’re not being truthful,” wrote one judge anonymously, as was most often the case with comments on this sensitive issue.

Among the more than 150 judges who commented, a small number said they had never felt pressured. That included a judge who reported having served 33 years on the bench. But the overwhelming majority of commenters felt otherwise.

All said that they had honored their oath and decided cases based only on the law and evidence.

“Felt (pressure), yes. Let it affect my decision, no,” wrote one judge, echoing many others.

The sources of pressure mentioned by NJC alumni included police, prosecutors, legislators, mayors, campaign donors, their superiors within the judiciary, and the public at large.

Elected judges wrote of sometimes being reminded that a decision could cost them votes.

“Certain segments of the Bar place enormous pressure on Florida trial judges subject to election,” one unnamed judge wrote. “These are lawyers who have something personally to gain or lose by the judge’s decision.”

More than one judge acknowledged that doing the right thing could be costly.

An unnamed elected judge described a situation several years ago in which an elected official wanted the judge to dismiss a traffic ticket for a wealthy, influential person. The judge refused.

“The family (of the person) had supported me for me years until then. The official and the family successfully campaigned against me in a subsequent election and I lost.”

Minnesota senior judge James Dehn said that in small towns, especially, many decisions generate pressure from law enforcement or the community, and they can “carry a price.”

A judge in one small rural community said the local sheriff has sometimes visited asking for “special consideration” in domestic/custody cases involving his deputies. Another time a local officer was charged with injuring a mentally ill individual, and the full police force came to court to “watch” the trial, the judge wrote.

“None of these attempts worked,” wrote the judge, who added that after 15 years on the bench he or she is seeing fewer and fewer of these types of “visits.”

Several other judges also mentioned attempted intimidation by gallery packing.

An unnamed judge who described serving in the “Deep South fundamentalist Bible Belt” recalled facing a courtroom packed with public and religious figures when about to rule in a custody case between a Baptist father and a lesbian mother. “Mother won.”

An administrative law judge wrote of being “constantly” pressured by the executive branch to adopt interpretations of law that the judge and colleagues considered “contrary to plain meaning, legislative intent, canon and public interest.” The ALJ pointed out that, unlike judges in the judicial branch, refusing to go along with your agency’s preferences can run the risk of being fired.

An appointed judge in a small city in Washington state who wished to remain nameless described what happened after the city installed photo-traffic cameras. Revenue started pouring in from uncontested traffic citations. The city then began monitoring the judge’s dismissals and mitigation decisions related to ticket appeals.

“They subtly pressured me about them, including the city attorney coming into my court and arguing on behalf of the city that I had no authority to dismiss tickets,” the judge wrote.

In a later meeting with the mayor around the time of the judge’s reappointment, the mayor complained that the judge was reducing tickets too much. The mayor said it appeared that the judge believed people when they said they had no jobs. The judge did believe them, the judge said.

“This kind of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure had never been there before, and I was furious! Of course I did not change how I handle traffic tickets in the least!!!”

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings

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