Just imagine trying to evict an old bachelor judge from his ancestral farmhouse. That one stunt is proof that attacks on the independence of America's judiciary have gone too far.
Good thing for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter that most voters in his New Hampshire hometown last week turned against the idea of seizing his house.
The justice can breathe a sigh of relief, even if he knew all along that the proposed seizure would never stand up in court, that the intent was symbolic punishment.
Property-rights activists mounted the campaign in anger over the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last year that upheld state governments' power to seize private property for purposes of economic development. Eminent domain critics suggested taking Souter's home and converting it into the Lost Liberty Hotel.
OK, perhaps you think there's something cheeky and borderline amusing about the Souter campaign.
There's nothing funny, though, about the overall climate of attacks on judges and the bedrock idea of judicial independence.
From property rights, to end-of-life issues, to criminal sentencing and more, judges' decisions are under siege in a way that threatens courts' critical role as check-and-balance.
The Souter controversy seems benign compared to the malevolence afoot in South Dakota: A November referendum, if approved, would trash judicial independence by permitting lawsuits against judges for such vague charges as "deliberate disregard of material facts."
In practice, the state's Judicial Accountability Initiative Law - that's right, the acronym is JAIL - will serve to cow judges who seek to exercise their role as, well... judges.
There's ample evidence, most recently with Souter, that judges are being assailed not for actual wrongdoing, but for making correct, but unpopular decisions.
Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R., Texas) ominously suggested that federal judges in the Terri Schiavo feeding-tube case would "answer for their behavior." Their behavior consisted of following the law in ways a baying pack of politicians found inconvenient.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) also mused last year that courthouse violence could stem from unpopular rulings. After such reckless comments - and with the murders last year of a Chicago judge's husband and mother - it's no wonder that about 1,500 federal judges have put in for government-installed security systems at their homes.
The Bush administration hasn't helped by resisting court oversight of terror suspects' detention and of warrantless spying on Americans. The White House sends a message that the courts aren't needed as a check on the potential abuse of power.
Thankfully, we're seeing some push-back - none more eloquent than a recent speech by retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Warning "against those who would strong-arm the judiciary," O'Connor said, "It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
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