With the judiciary under attack, we need to be educating the public

April 12, 2019
President’s Message By Bryan Neft

Judges and the independence of the judiciary are under attack. I need your help. Our profession needs your help. And the people of Allegheny County need your help.

In February, President-Elect Lori McMaster and I attended the Conference of County Bar Leaders in State College and heard some very disturbing things about the perceptions of the judiciary. Judge James Ross of Beaver County told us about a movement known as “sovereign citizens.” Sovereign citizens are nothing more than anarchists who refuse to recognize the jurisdiction and legitimacy of, among other things, constitutionally authorized courts. The movement goes deeper than that; really, its followers refuse to recognize most government as antithetical to their “natural rights.” The movement is considered dangerous enough that the Pennsylvania State Police have a course on how to recognize affiliated individuals.

We also heard from Supreme Court Justices Max Baer and Christine Donohue about attacks on the independence of the judiciary. Just last year, there was a movement in the General Assembly to impeach all of the justices who joined the majority in the Pennsylvania gerrymandering decision concerning congressional districts. In West Virginia, that state’s legislature sought to impeach the entire West Virginia Supreme Court even though only one member of that court had been under investigation and indicted for federal crimes.

The point of this article is not to debate the propriety of impeachment movements. (The Pennsylvania General Assembly may remove a judge or justice for “misbehavior.”) The point is that judges should not be under attack for doing their jobs. As Kevin Townsend wrote in his article for The Atlantic in October, “Courts, it is often remarked, control neither armies nor treasuries. Their power comes from their legitimacy – from the collective respect won by their credibility and independence.”

At the conference, Justice Donahue pointed to a finding in a 2016 policy statement from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania (not Penn State) that only 26 percent of all American adults can name the three branches of government. By 2018, that figure had increased to 32 percent. When I was young, everyone was expected to know about the three branches of government and how they interrelate. It is only when we, the people, understand why our system was created to function how it does the way it was, does that system have legitimacy and, hence, independence.

Many, many years ago, I, along with my third-grade class, had a golden opportunity to visit the courtroom of Judge Louis Spavero. He welcomed us to his courtroom and gave each of us an American flag to take home. I can’t recall much of the proceeding we observed other than that it involved an individual who had a drug problem. I listened as the judge outlined how the individual could work to improve his situation. I may have been too young to understand the import of what the judge was doing; but I do now. I was fortunate to have that early introduction to the court system. It gave me the fundamentals needed to understand its importance. I am not sure that our school age students are growing up with those same fundamentals.

Both the bench and bar have an obligation to get the message out. Over the years, the members of the ACBA have been engaged in community outreach, but we need to make it a greater priority now because the only way to combat ignorance is through education. To that end, I will be convening an ad hoc committee of members of the bench and bar to study and make recommendations regarding outreach to the public, children and adults alike, concerning the importance of an independent judiciary. Following up on my statement about the horrific shooting at Tree of Life- Or L’Simcha synagogue in October, I will also ask the ad hoc committee to study and make recommendations for community outreach on First Amendment issues including freedom of religion and freedom of speech. I have asked Elizabeth Hughes, this year’s nominee for president-elect, to chair the ad hoc committee.

Hughes has made community outreach a priority for her upcoming term as an officer of the ACBA. I wish I could claim to be engaging in hyperbole when I say that for the good of the public we all need to be similarly committed on this. But that isn’t an exaggeration. When it comes to the rule of law and the needed independence of the judiciary, these are worrisome times, and we all need to do our part in educating about its importance.

To talk about these issues further, please contact ACBA President Bryan Neft at 412-325-3317 or BNeft@spilmanlaw.com.