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Judicial Accountability

Judges Pledge to Uphold the Law
Judges take an oath of office to follow and apply the law faithfully. In certain cases, judges find themselves in a dilemma--that of faithfully applying a law that conflicts with the judge's own beliefs, principles, or sense of justice. What happens when a judge refuses to apply a law because the judge does not agree with it? Can a judge refuse to follow a judicial precedent?

Recent Examples of Dilemma

Examples of this dilemma include:

  • A California appellate court judge refuses to follow the California Supreme Court's decision in a case presenting the same issue. Instead, he issues a dissenting opinion, stating that he cannot apply the supreme court's rule as a matter of conscience.
  • The Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court refuses to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments, which he had installed in the Alabama Judicial Building, after a federal court said his actions were unconstitutional. The Chief Justice is removed from office for ethics violations, and the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear his case.
  • A temporary Arizona judge is removed from the bench after placing a written statement in court records that he would disqualify himself from all drug cases because he believed the drug laws were unconstitutional.
  • St. Louis, Missouri prosecutors attempt to remove a circuit judge from criminal cases because of sentencing practices that are considered too lenient.
  • A federal district judge imposes a 13-month sentence on a drug offender instead of the 10-year sentence mandated by federal sentencing guidelines.

Judicial Ethics and Judicial Precedent
In addition to taking an oath to uphold the law, judges are required by judicial ethics and judicial precedent to follow prior case law on matters that have been decided by higher courts. Judicial precedent is aimed at preventing personal views from replacing the collective wisdom of prior court decisions. Two of the above examples ended in different results. In the case involving the California appellate court judge, the California Commission on Judicial Performance dismissed a complaint that had been filed against the judge for ethical violations. The Commission concluded that the judge's action did not constitute an ethical violation warranting disciplinary action.

A different result was reached in the case of the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. When the Chief Justice refused to remove the monument, as ordered by a federal court, he was removed from office for ethics violations. The Alabama Court on the Judiciary concluded that the Chief Justice was held to a higher standard than the general public and that while he had a right to his personal opinion, he had a duty to conform his conduct to established rules of law.