Lady Justice Isn’t Smiling!

But don’t pin this one on the Madison County judiciary.

© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Tad Armstrong

In the wake of the recent argle-bargle over lawyers’ contributions to Judge Barbara Crowder’s judicial campaign in Madison County, Illinois, I’m not sure it’s possible to hold an adult, objective and honest conversation on the topic without slipping into a medieval suit of armor, especially when it is a Madison County attorney initiating the discourse. Oh, well, here goes.

America’s rendition of Lady Justice can be found cast in marble or bronze in and around most courthouses in this land. She carries a sword in one hand, symbolizing power, and a set of scales in the other, symbolizing a reasoned weighing of evidence, ultimately favoring the side of truth and justice.

The most striking symbol, however, is the blindfold, representing the ideal that true justice is to be meted out without passion – without prejudice – without any outside influence of money, friendship or conflicts of interest. The best in our culture strive to reach the ideals of our civil system and, hopefully, come closer to doing so than most, but, alas, these ideals are never truly reached, for although I know a lot of good judges with tremendous integrity, I have never met a perfect human being. Have you?

I am unaware of any corresponding symbol adorning legislative halls or executive suites. That is, unless you are counting the number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the House or Senate parking lots or royal treatment we seem to provide to the occupants of the White House, all symbols of sorts. Isn’t it interesting that retired judges are rarely, if ever, thought of as wealthy in comparison to career legislators or presidents?

I mention the other two branches because the issue, here, is money, otherwise known as influence. We celebrate what money can do in these branches of government, at least to a degree. These folks get campaign money from us or from unions or corporations (again, from us). The winners are not sent to office to do the bidding of the losers. We have a moral right to expect campaign promises to be met, or at the least, to be seriously pursued. In other words, legislators and presidents are expected to do their job with prejudice favoring the positions that win our votes.

The judiciary is a horse of a different color. Lady Justice knows no party, no race, no monetary influence. That is why I cannot imagine any elected trial judge in Illinois is pleased with a system that permits and even encourages campaign contributions from lawyers that practice before them. Through no fault of their own, if they wish to be a circuit judge, they are confronted with a system that demands money raised from lawyers. And, we expect them not to favor those who give the most. We also expect lawyers to make contributions to judges without expecting anything in return. I accept there was no quid pro quo here, because I know the parties involved. Yet, there is a fine line between agreement and anticipated kindness, is there not? I said this discussion would be honest and the hard truth is that we expect more from this flawed system than is humanly possible in a branch of government that should be setting the loftiest of standards.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I cannot imagine any of our elected judges favoring a contributor on the wrong side of a clear question of law or fact. Ah, but the rub comes when the questions aren’t so clear and, in such cases, no human being can completely disassociate himself or herself from the influence of friends or money.

In spite of the foregoing, I have never felt Judge Crowder ruled against my position in any case before her due to my lack of participation in the “system.” I have not contributed to judicial campaigns for years because I determined it was simply wrong in principle. Our judges know that about me and, with one exception of a judge no longer on the bench, I have never felt prejudiced because of my stance.

It is extraordinarily unfair to pin another label on Madison County when, in fact, this broken system is imposed upon Madison County by Illinois law. It persists wherever judges are elected and lawyers are permitted to contribute to their campaigns.

Political knee-jerk reactions calling for investigations and resignations miss the point entirely. The system stinks. Lawyers know it, every judge who has ever discussed this with me knows it, and it is the understatement of the century to say that all of you know it. The ideal of blind justice should be the essence of a non-partisan goal. I would trade an investigation and/or resignation for legislation to fix the system. How’s that for a novel idea? (By the way, I have a suggestion, but no room left to say it. Maybe later.)

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