U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts headlined last week’s news as he presided over President Trump’s impeachment trial. Justice Roberts explained his role as being that of an umpire in a baseball game, calling balls and strikes. Nevertheless, some people disagreed with whether Justice Roberts should only be calling balls and strikes and other people disagreed with whether any particular pitch was a ball or strike.
Justice Roberts demonstrates the struggles that all judges (some courts, like the Supreme Court, refer to judges as justices) face daily. Even though we may disagree with them, almost all decisions made by judges at all levels of our government are fair, impartial and well-thought-out.
Attention is often focused on judges’ political affiliations, particularly as to controversial cases. However, most attorneys cannot discern a judge’s political affiliation by reading his or her decisions.
This is particularly so because judges are legally bound by the precedents set by higher courts. In other words, if the Supreme Court says that a law that could mean A or B is B, all other lower courts must honor that interpretation.
Therefore, as to all courts and judges other than the U.S. Supreme Court and state supreme courts, judges are applying the law as clearly written by the legislature (in Ohio, the General Assembly and federally, Congress) or as interpreted by a higher court.
When it comes to judicial philosophy (i.e. activist, original intent, etc.), there are various schools of thought, but, as explained above, only the judges at the highest levels consider or apply those schools of though.
Justice Roberts, in his role as the presiding judge of the presidential impeachment trial, assumed the same role that our local judges assume every day: impartial (to the best of each judge’s ability) calls on whether a fact or situation falls into one legal category or another while the actual deciders (in this case, the Senate) make the substantive decisions.
It is not easy to be a judge at any level. In our state, judges are elected, which means that they can sometimes face negative consequences (as to job security) when the law as written and as the judge is required to follow is not supportive of one side or the other. In other words, great judges can and sometimes do carry out their duties so well that they lose their jobs.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer attempted to address and resolve this conundrum, not particularly unique to Ohio, before Justice Moyer died. However, the alternatives to judicial elections are not always better, at least in some ways. For example, federal judges who have lifetime appointments could arguably become reckless or abusive in decision-making due to not being easily held accountable, despite many of those judges being subject to impeachment themselves.
As Justice Roberts’s face showed many times last week, like being a high school sports referee (or in this case, umpire), being a judge is typically thankless but crucial work in our society.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.