Panel finds politics and fairness coexist in judicial system
There was nary a dispute nor the need for mediation, but there was a lively conversation during the Center for Dispute Resolution (also known as the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program) panel discussion of the "Political Challenges Influencing (or not) Those Serving on the Bench."
The discussion, convened August 11, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown and moderated by The Martha's Vineyard Times Editor Doug Cabral, featured senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Norman Stahl, retired Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Robert Gammage, and Joseph Sollitto Jr., clerk of the courts/magistrate for Dukes County.
The audience of approximately 30 also heard opening remarks made by Ann Brown, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton Administration.
Judge Stahl was appointed to the bench by then-President George Bush in 1990. Mr. Gammage was a Texas state representative and senator as well as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the to the state Court of Appeals and then the Texas Supreme Court in 1990. He is now in private practice and is also an arbitrator and mediator. Mr. Sollitto has been reelected five times to the clerk position since 1976.
"How do you process all that you hear and read, that your wife tells you about, that your neighbors and friends complain to you about, and that the national media and the television voices bombard you with day in and day out?" Mr. Cabral asked the panelists.
"My experience has always been the same," Judge Stahl said. "Judges always try to get it right. There are some days when I come to work that there are pickets or protestors out front, but I do not pay attention to them."
Mr. Gammage said, "I think every judge tries to get it right depending on their background. Judges are human beings. We all bring our cultural baggage with us. A judge's duty is to be fair and impartial in the administration of justice. In doing that, our unique thought processes are at work."
Mr. Sollitto, noting that court clerk/magistrates are the only jobs in the judiciary of Massachusetts that are elected, said, "All the judges I have worked with take it seriously. Judges who come to the Vineyard are on a circuit, so they do not know the attorneys or the people involved in a case here."
Mr. Cabral asked the panelists if it does make a difference if one is elected or appointed to the bench.
Judge Stahl said, "Every federal judge is a friend of the governor, a senator, the president or somebody who appoints you to one of those positions and usually is a member of the party of the appointing authority. So, it is a political appointment, and anybody who tells you that an appointed job is not a political appointment is not really telling you the whole story."
"All judicial selection processes are political," Mr. Gammage, who was an elected judge, agreed. "The judiciary is the third branch of government. I do not care if you are appointed or reviewed by the senate, the legislature, or a peer selection committee — it is still a political process."
Mr. Cabral asked the panelists about the impact of cameras in the courtroom. Judge Stahl said that although cameras are not currently allowed in federal courtrooms, that may change, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospect. "Cameras exaggerate what happens," he said. He added that often jurors are uncomfortable with their presence. "We are also concerned that lawyers and some judges may play to the camera. It is not entertainment that we are doing."
Mr. Gammage said that in Texas, the state Supreme Court does permit one pool camera and, "I do not think it affected that court's deliberation, but I am not ready to put cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court."
"There are many," Judge Stahl added, "who think that if the OJ trial had not become a circus with cameras in the courtroom, and with the courtroom not well controlled, the verdict would have been different."
Mr. Sollitto favored cameras in the courtroom. They are permitted in Massachusetts' courtrooms under strictly defined rules. There is also now a digital audio recording system in the Dukes County courthouse and, Mr. Sollitto said, he expects the system to be able to record video as well within a year or two.
Mr. Cabral asked Mr. Sollitto what he believed the audience would take away from seeing a courtroom proceeding on television. They would see, he replied, "that justice works."
This public forum is the first that the nonprofit organization, founded in 1984, has held. Initially, the Mediation Program provided free dispute resolution services on cases referred by the Edgartown District Court, the Probate and Family Courts, and the Superior Court. The organization changed its name in 1990 to the Center for Dispute Resolution when it began providing its services for a fee to mediate community conflicts involving neighbors, landlords and tenants, homeowners and contractors, business owners, parents and children, partners, and spouses and elders.