I was concerned about the tone of Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews’ recent criticism of Circuit Judge Alison Lee. While I don’t play basketball on the weekends with either Sheriff Matthews or Judge Lee, I feel compelled to help both of them on this issue, as I believe it opens the door for a much-needed civics discussion.
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In the United States, the legislative branch of government makes the law, the executive branch enforces the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law. Sheriff Matthews and I are both part of the executive branch.
The job of the judiciary is to apply the law to factual situations and provide a just resolution for the parties involved as well as for society. The courts apply the law, settle disputes and punish lawbreakers according to the laws of our country and this state. Our judicial system upholds peace, order and good government.
It is unfair as well as bad public policy to attack judges about a single case.
Criticism of a judge’s overall record is one thing; but is part of the process when they are being considered for re-appointment or promotion. But to vilify judges over a single decision or case is another, especially when judges are prohibited from publicly commenting or defending themselves against criticism.
As a prosecutor and former law enforcement officer, I share Sheriff Matthews’ frustrations. We don’t always get to keep the “bad guys” in jail and off of the streets for as long as we'd like.
Indeed, the law can sometimes seem fickle, hence her nickname “the jealous mistress.” Sometimes she sides with me as the prosecutor, and other times she will be on the other side with “the criminal,” otherwise known as the defendant. I say that in jest, as it is a matter of perspective. But it is a core principle in our system of government: that a citizen is innocent until proven guilty.
It’s frustrating. It’s unfair. It’s also the way things work. Nothing is 100 percent. I don’t get to win every time. No one gets to win every time. In fact, it would be suspicious if the same side was always victorious.
Judicial independence is the bedrock of our system of justice.
I don’t always like or agree with all of the decisions from the court, but the independent decision-making in and of itself is vital to the process.
What is unique to the judiciary is that it hears both sides of a case. The judiciary must hear and consider the aggravating circumstances that I present in a case, as well as the mitigating factors that the defense presents. Then, it is the judge’s job to marry them up with the law. I don’t always like or agree with all of the decisions from the court, but the independent decision-making in and of itself is vital to the process.
These matters are often complex and difficult rather than clear-cut. Evidence is what drives the train. There is usually more to a case than the public receives in a single news story or a quick sound bite.
As a person who teaches the rule of law for the military in other countries, I respect and appreciate the system that we have in America. No system is as balanced as ours.
No system is as balanced as ours.
For example, judges in Russia have no independence. The prosecutor handpicks the judge, who is told that the defendant is guilty. There is no “due process” nor “presumption of innocence.” In short, the Russian court process is a sham. No one wants to be accused of a crime and then subjected to a sham process where the outcome has already been predetermined.
And that’s not how we do business in America.
What I love about our process is the separation of powers and the balance of the system. I love our Constitution and our way of life.
While it may sometimes be frustrating and at times seem unfair, respect for the judicial system must remain intact. I think we do more to improve it by working together than by attacking one another.
Mr. Johnson is the solicitor for the 5th Judicial Circuit, composed of Richland and Kershaw counties; contact him at JOHNSONDA@rcgov.us.