Law Matters: What do judges believe ... really?
Content date: 02/27/2006

The following is a column by Missouri Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff.

Hours after being sworn in, Justice Samuel Alito was asked to lift an order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals based in St. Louis that put an execution on hold. He voted “no,” as did a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Media pundits immediately described this as “splitting with conservatives” and speculated widely as to what this supposedly surprising vote meant.

Did it mean that Justice Alito is against the death penalty or even that he believes that the defendant, Missouri inmate Michael Taylor, should not be put to death?

The pundits should stop and take a breath. All the vote meant was that the new justice voted not to overturn the appeals court’s decision to hold up the execution while a further appeal was to be decided.

Too often, court-watchers put an individual vote in a single case under a microscope. And a molehill becomes a mountain, to use another figure of speech.

This, too, happens even in the Show-Me State. For example, as the chief justice, I am responsible for signing hundreds of orders every year. These orders can be as mundane as granting an extension of time for a party to file a brief or can be as dire as a warrant setting an execution date. When I sign an order, I am indicating only that it is an order of the Supreme Court of Missouri, and nothing more. I may or may not personally agree with the law on which the order is based.

Opinions of the Court are based on the law
Courts and judges often say that our judicial opinions speak for themselves. An appellate court usually publishes an opinion after written and oral arguments by lawyers. An individual judge may be listed as the author of the opinion, which explains the reasons for the court's decision.

Decisions are based on constitutional provisions, statutes, previous cases and procedural rules. Court opinions are not based on – nor do they necessarily reflect – the personal views of any judge on the court.

A simple example of the court’s role is a case a few years ago in which I wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court of Missouri. An Iowa man was arrested for driving in Missouri after his Iowa driver’s license had been revoked. One of the crimes he was convicted of in Missouri was driving after his license had been revoked “under the laws of this state.” The problem was language of the Missouri statute, as enacted by the General Assembly – it required that the driver’s license be revoked “under the laws of this state.” It did not include a license revoked under the laws of Iowa or any other state. When reviewing this conviction, all of the judges of course understood that the General Assembly undoubtedly did not want drivers whose licenses had been revoked in other states to drive on Missouri roads. Nor, of course, would we judges want that. But unfortunately, that is not what the law said. As a result, the Court unanimously overturned the conviction.

Was that result “soft on crime?” Or “strict construction?” It was neither. The Court simply applied the words of a law to the particular facts of the case. The General Assembly, by the way, fixed the law during its next session.

Court opinions are not personal beliefs
Supreme Court opinions are directed at one result: resolving a legal dispute. They do not necessarily reflect any judge’s personal views about the subject matter, nor are they pronouncements of political policy. A review of the Court's opinions would show that decisions are based on laws enacted by the General Assembly, previous court decisions, court rules, constitutional provisions or other guiding legal authority. Different judges may differ on what a legal provision means or what legal principle controls a case. An individual judge may write a separate opinion dissenting or concurring with the opinion of the Court; there you may find an expression of one judge’s individual views about what a legal provision means or what legal principle should control.

There is no doubt that politicians or special interest groups occasionally will try to pressure courts to reach a result in line with their views. But the public has a right to expect that judges will resist such pressures. Political attacks, letter writing, phone calls or picketing the courthouse do not change the law.

In Missouri, the General Assembly changes the law. Or, if it is a state constitutional provision, the people can vote to change it. Or, if the result is based on the U.S. Constitution or federal law, the losing party can ask Justice Samuel Alito and his colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court to correct the error.

Judges, as other citizens, have personal beliefs. When citizens come to courts to serve as jurors, we instruct them to set aside their persons beliefs and decide cases based on the law and the facts. The same is true for judges, who take an oath to do just that.

For discussion questions for classrooms and civic groups, please go to www.mobar.org under the Educators section.