The founders understood that judges who are able to apply the law freely and fairly are essential to the rule of law. The Constitution guarantees our rights on paper, but this would mean nothing without independent courts to protect them.
Our federal judges are protected from the influence of the other branches, as well as shifting popular opinion. This insulation is referred to as judicial independence, and it allows them to make decisions based on what is right under the law, without facing political (not getting reelected) or personal (getting fired, having their salary lowered) consequences for the decisions they make.
Judicial Independence is Maintained in Several Ways
Federal Judges are Appointed
First, judges are appointed at the federal level, as opposed to being elected. This frees judges from having to run for election, raise money, and take a partisan stand on issues. Thus, once appointed they don’t have to please their constituents to try to gain reelection, and can simply do their job
Federal Judges Serve a Life Term
The second factor that helps judges to remain independent is their life term. The lifetime term provides job security, and allows appointed judges to do what is right under the law, because they don’t have to fear that they will be fired if they make an unpopular decision.
Federal Judges Can’t Have Their Salary Reduced
Thirdly, judges cannot be punished with a reduction in salary. This security allows judges to decide each case strictly in terms of the legal issues in front of them, no matter how unpopular their decisions may be.
- Congress sets the salary of judges in the federal system. This salary can be raised but cannot be decreased once the judge has taken office.
- The salary of a federal judge is roughly equal to that of a member of Congress.
Checks and Balances
Independent judges protect our freedoms, but it is also important to protect the people from a court that is too powerful. With complete independence judges could throw people in jail or change laws on a whim.
The Constitution gives judges the power to do their jobs, but it also sets out ways to prevent them from abusing their power. This guarantees that independent courts and judges remain faithful to the rule of law.
Article III of the Constitution, tells us that judges “. . . shall hold their offices during good behavior.” Though this is a bit vague, the intent is clear. Judges have life terms, because once appointed they keep their jobs until they choose to quit so long as they have “good behavior.” To ensure this good behavior, there are some “checks” on judicial power built into the Constitution.
One of these checks is impeachment. Impeachment is the process of charging a federal official (in this case, a judge) with committing a “high crime or misdemeanor.” If a judge is impeached, and found guilty of an impeachable offense, then they can be removed from office.
The process of impeachment is detailed in Article I of the Constitution. The House of Representatives investigates the improper behavior, and charges the accused. Members of the House then try the case before the Senate, which acts as the judge and jury in the case (unless in cases of Presidential or Vice Presidential impeachment, when the Chief Justice of the United States presides). If the Senate votes guilty (by a majority vote), the person is removed from office.
The impeachment process is a powerful check that the legislative branch has over the judicial and executive branches of government. In the case of judicial independence, impeachment offers some security that if judges are acting in an illegal fashion, they can be removed from the bench.
A second major check on the power of the courts is the Judicial Code of Conduct. When judges take office, they agree to abide by a set of ethical principles established by the Judicial Conference of the United States. This Code of Conduct for United States Judges, according to the United States Courts web page, “provides guidance for judges on issues of judicial integrity and independence, judicial diligence and impartiality, permissible extra-judicial activities, and the avoidance of impropriety or even its appearance.
There are many ethical guidelines that judges must follow to remain independent, for example:
- Judges should not hear cases if it may appear they have a personal bias. For example, if they are related to the defendant or plaintiff, there is a chance the judge might have personal knowledge of facts in the case, or may have a financial interest in the case.
- If a judge has some bias in a case, or if the judge is concerned someone else may think they have a bias in the case, they can recuse themselves. This means that they step down from the case and allow another judge to take it.
Federal judges take the following oath:
“I, ___ , do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [Judge] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.”