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Breyer Urges Judges to Engage the Public


Standing before a Boston ballroom packed with hundreds of judges and lawyers, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer last night urged them to continue their efforts to educate the public about the role of the judiciary and to engage them in the judicial process. "We have to explain why this institution is worth supporting," he told them.

Breyer was the keynote speaker at a dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Superior Court, one of the oldest trial courts of general jurisdiction in the country. The dinner capped a day-long symposium that explored both the history and the future of the court. More notably, the court used the occasion of its anniversary to stage a series of educational events throughout the year aimed at enhancing public understanding of the courts. Among the most talked-about of these are re-enactments of famous trials, such as one scheduled this week that will recreate the 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden.

Breyer praised trial judges as "the people who face the people." But he expressed concern that the general public fails to understand the impartiality of judges and the importance of judicial independence. "Judicial independence means something to a judge. But to someone who is not a judge or a lawyer, it is hard to convince them of what you are talking about."

Within just the last five years, he said, he has seen a dramatic drop in public confidence in the judiciary. Just a few years ago, poll numbers showed that roughly a quarter of the public believed judges decided cases based on politics. That number has been creeping up, Breyer said, to the point where, "the last time I looked, it's closer to 50 percent."

This is why public education and engagement is so important, Breyer said. "You know whether you're deciding [a case] fairly, but don't expect anyone else to." Citing President Eisenhower's 1957 use of the 101st Airborne to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, in furtherance of a federal judge's order, Breyer suggested that courts use such great moments in law to help teach the importance of judicial independence.

Still, he conceded, making the public understand why the judiciary is an institution worth supporting "isn't such an easy thing to do." After all, he said, we are asking them to support an institution that will not always do what the public believes it should.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 23, 2009 at 02:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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