U.S. federal courts are in crisis, primarily due to overloaded dockets, escalating judicial vacancies and the refusal of Senate Democrats to move the confirmation process. The Politicalization of Justice

U.S federal courts are in crisis, primarily due to overloaded dockets, escalating judicial vacancies and the refusal of Senate Democrats to move the confirmation process. Instead, the Democrats seek to institutionalize ideology as the benchmark and character assassination as the means to fundamentally alter the constitutional integrity of "advise and consent."

Remarkably, there are now still nominees willing to stand for the federal bench. As we have weekly updated our Confirmation Watch section with bios of the President Bush’s nominees, absent any consideration of ideology, we have been mightily impressed with the qualifications of those willing to serve.

That will diminish dramatically if a forced and lengthy visit to confirmation limbo, accompanied by tabloid-quality press releases, is to be the new order of the day. Since politics is payback–and the current impasse is at least partially based on that truism–the intensifying vortex is going to suck in a lot more than hapless nominees for the judiciary.

The state courts of Alabama are also in crisis, primarily due to insufficient funds, to the point of a moratorium on jury trials. While money is the problem, there, too, a dissonant political tonality pervades the issue.

Faced with a $2.7 million budget shortfall, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore undertook the radical step of postponing civil jury trials and limiting the duration of most criminal jury trials to two weeks. Five hundred thousand dollars in emergency funding, released by the governor last week, will get jury trials resumed, after considerable disruption, and then only temporarily.

Democratic Governor Don Siegelman and Republican Chief Justice Moore are trading accusations: The courts are mismanaged. The governor promised enough money, and then reneged. The courts have $112 million in uncollected fines, fees and forfeitures. The state received $13 million for settling a lawsuit with Shell Oil; the legislature, with the governor’s concurrence, used that money to give pay raises to state employees instead of to aid the courts. Alabama judges are comparatively well paid, with another raise on the horizon.

The political ping pong goes on; yin and yang do not align, or whatever it is they do to make things cool; feng shui has left the courthouse.

Meanwhile, both accuser and accused are denied the speedy trials and juries of peers to which they are constitutionally entitled. More lawsuits, some justified, will result from that, adding to the burden on courts. Jails are crammed to the rafters because the normal flow of justice has been stopped. Even when trials resume, in June, they will undoubtedly be slowed because of layoffs of court employees.

We don’t have a clue who is responsible for this "mell of a hess," in the vernacular of an Alabama lawyer, but it does appear that both sides have sought to escalate the conflict politically rather than solve the problem.

We do know that the politicalization of justice, by whomever, for whatever purpose, at whichever level, is one of the gravest dangers to the delicate balance of government. We are not so naïve as to ignore that which has existed forever, usually confined to background noise effects or sufficiently pronounced as to be reasonably controlled.

Contempt of Congress and Contempt of Court are legal phrases, now applied to the demonstrative few who openly and blatantly defy authority. But justice politicized is justice corrupted. When that corruption breeds citizen contempt too broad to sanction, then consent of the governed becomes a shaky proposition.

We are not there and nowhere near it yet. The signs, however, are not encouraging.

May 9, 2002
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