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Bullying of judges puts checks out of balance

The chaos surrounding the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was not just a wake-up call on capital punishment and how it is administered. The final hours also saw political efforts to bully and weaken Oklahoma’s courts. Similar battles are playing out around the country, threatening the ability of our courts to be fair and impartial.

When Lockett’s attorneys filed a lawsuit seeking information about the drug mixture that ultimately failed, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay to grant more time for review. But the governor announced that she would disregard the court’s ruling. A legislator introduced a resolution to impeach the five justices who had voted for the stay, alleging “a willful neglect of duty and incompetence.” The Supreme Court ultimately dissolved its stay and allowed Lockett’s execution to proceed.

The constitutional crisis may have been brief, but it was profoundly disturbing. As lifetime jurists and former chief justices of the supreme courts of Arizona and Indiana, we believe our treasured American system of checks and balances is harmed when our courts are threatened with intimidation. Our courts were designed to be the branch of government most insulated from politics.

This is especially critical when it comes to our criminal courts, which must be allowed to work properly and deliberately in order to protect the innocent, convict the guilty and provide just punishment. If judges cannot make life-or-death decisions based on the law without looking over their shoulders for threats of retaliation, they cannot uphold the Constitution and protect Americans’ rights.

The Oklahoma case is bad enough. But in state capitals across the nation, there are disturbing efforts by partisans, politicians and special interests to intimidate our courts.

For example, a vigorously debated bill in the Missouri legislature would have permitted lawsuits against state officials, including judges, for enforcing federal gun laws. In retaliation for court decisions, Kansas lawmakers removed the Supreme Court’s authority to pick chief district court judges and weakened its authority over the judiciary’s budget.

This atmosphere of bullying is reminiscent of an anti-court spasm a decade ago, when cable TV hosts and “Justice Sunday” rallies demanded the impeachment of state and federal judges over controversial decisions. Congress even bowed to interest-group pressure by tampering with a state court dispute between family members of Terri Schiavo during her end-of-life ordeal.

Courts are also under growing pressure from the increasing amounts of money being spent in judicial elections. Interest groups spent more than $1.3 million in a North Carolina primary this month involving a single Supreme Court seat. In Tennessee, because the Supreme Court selects the state’s attorney general, a multi-million dollar effort is being discussed to unseat three justices. These kinds of big-money judicial elections threaten to turn judges into politicians in black robes.

These threats imperil our constitutional traditions, our heritage of rule of law and the strength of our democracy. If our courts are going to be fair and impartial, in Oklahoma and across the country, Americans need to stand up for them when politicians cross the line – especially during an election year, when political posturing will be even greater.

Ruth McGregor is a retired chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and Randall Shepard is a retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and a Court of Appeals senior judge. They are members of the board of directors of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan network working to keep courts fair and impartial. They wrote this for the Washington Post.