When an elected official has served in office as long and with as much distinction as Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, the public ought to listen to what he has to say.
Kudos to Hecht, who first became a judge 42 years ago, for delivering a sobering but important message earlier this month in his biennial “State of the Judiciary” address before members of all three branches of state government..
Partisan politics, he lamented, has worked its way into the judiciary in alarming ways, and threatens to undermine the sanctity of judicial independence.
After speaking for more than 30 minutes about the effects of COVID-19 and other matters facing Texas courts, Hecht paused and sighed before ending his remarks.
“And I must add this,” he said. “I grow concerned that political divisions among us threaten the judicial independence essential to the rule of law.”
Lawmakers and other elected officials of both parties put pressure on judges to take sides beyond the fair interpretation of the law. Some unfortunately do. The election of an openly partisan Democratic candidate to the Wisconsin Supreme Court the night before his address highlighted his concern, Hecht said.
“The election of the judge is hailed or decried as a political event, not a judicial one,” he said. “It will not be a one-off. It will be on both sides.”
The truth is that it already is.
Hecht, a Republican first appointed to the judiciary in 1981 by Gov. Bill Clements, stopped short of naming any specific Texas judge who had crossed the line into partisanship.
But there can be little doubt that in today’s high-voltage political climate some have let their personal views contaminate rulings.
Just two days after Hecht delivered his remarks in Austin, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s initial authorization back in 2000 of the widely used abortion drug mifepristone.
Minutes later, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice, an Obama appointee in Washington state, issued a conflicting ruling barring the FDA from “altering the status quo” of the drug. Late Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially granted and rejected the federal government’s emergency request to put on hold Kacsmaryk’s ruling.
“When judicial accountability is measured by whether a judge decides cases the way people like, the way some people like, and what they like is different from what the law is, the pressure is on the judge to surrender independence, and the law to popular will,” Hecht said. “We should oppose it in every form at all costs.”
We agree and urge lawmakers to take notice of Hecht’s concerns. Too often legislators, especially in Congress, shirk their responsibility to enact clear legislation or face difficult social questions, leaving the courts to establish law instead of interpreting it.
All judges in courts both low and high should be free from and reject the ugly partisan politics that have sadly sown such public distrust. We thank Hecht for the reminder.