Julie Doll: Courts warrant scrutiny, reform, respect

Julie Doll
Special to Gannett Kansas
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.

Early on, the United States’ experiment using three branches of government to check and balance one another could have taken a ruinous turn.

Before leaving the White House in defeat in 1801, John Adams sought to ensure that Federalist philosophy would dominate the judicial branch by appointing a bunch of new judges.

His political enemy and the new president, Thomas Jefferson, attempted to thwart the last of these appointments, one made to William Marbury.

Marbury sued, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1803 that Jefferson overstepped his authority when he tried to nix Marbury’s appointment.

Chief Justice John Marshall, a federalist who had served in the administration of John Adams before Adams nominated him to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion.

And Americans have been arguing about the role of the courts ever since.

There is good reason to question the role of courts and the decisions they make. In a representative democracy, no official and no branch of government should be above scrutiny.

But there’s an important distinction between scrutiny and contempt.

The lack of respect shown the judiciary has grown more apparent in recent decades.

Many historians and journalists point to 1987 as a turning point. That’s when many Democrats took aim at Robert Bork, launching an unprecedented partisan attack on the conservative who had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

These days, neither Democrats nor Republicans bother to disguise their partisan efforts to undermine nominees, the courts, or court rulings.

Recently, conservative Fox TV personality Lou Dobbs accused U.S. Supreme Court justices of being part of the “deep state” — because the court issued a 7-2 decision that a U.S. president can be compelled to turn over financial records as part of a criminal investigation.

A few days later, President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a political ally who had been convicted of seven felonies related to Trump and his 2016 campaign. Trump claimed the judicial system had treated Stone unfairly.

Here in Kansas, Republicans recently trashed a state Supreme Court nominee because they said he was too political. Many of the same Republicans enthusiastically confirmed Justice Caleb Stegall in 2014, even though Stegall had served as chief counsel for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

And any judge on any level who makes a decision with which Republicans or Democrats disagree is now targeted on social media as evil, vile, incompetent or all of the above.

Not only are Republican and Democratic partisans eager to exploit the judicial system for political gain, they are willing to undermine trust in the system to win votes.

Disagreement about the role of the courts, the political philosophy of judges, and whether a ruling is right or wrong are natural and can be constructive.

But when politicians and TV personalities work to undermine trust in the system by claiming that jury verdicts and judge’s rulings with which they disagree are proof that the system is corrupt, the nation is on dangerous ground.

Such antics pose a far greater threat to democracy than toppling a statue or burning a flag.

Our court system is far from perfect. It warrants scrutiny and reform.

But we shouldn’t want a judicial system with which we always agree. And we shouldn’t accept one that kowtows to the partisans currently in power. That would destroy any semblance of justice and undermine our rights.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.