Law Matters: What do judges believe ...
Content date: 02/27/2006
The following is a column by Missouri Chief Justice Michael A.
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
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?
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been revoked.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after his license had been revoked “under the laws of this state.”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.
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
Court opinions are not personal
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
under the Educators