OPINION

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Judicial facade slips more


The practical truth is that justice is not blind, but politically partisan.

Let's be serious. You have five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court. You have three Democrats. They're barely different from congressional votes. The main difference is that they wear robes and say otherwise.

You have Chief Justice John Roberts trying to hold together some appearance of politics-free justice, since that's a great American principle.

It would be nice to leave all that implied truth implied--something for a newspaper columnist to whine about--rather than make it explicit.

Yes, here we have a newspaper columnist reduced to pleading for lip service to a facade. It's a last thread and he has grabbed hold.

The official code of conduct for judgeship candidates in Arkansas says they must run as nonpartisan persons and never identify themselves by membership in a political party.

Those are noble words and a noble concept. That also is a wonderful framework for a game of charades.

I don't know if they will be playing charades, exactly, on Monday evening in Paragould at a meet-and-greet for Barbara Webb.

The social invitation called Webb the conservative Republican candidate in her race seeking to rise from associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court to chief justice. It said it was time to elect a real conservative Republican to take over justice in Arkansas.

Webb, the former longtime first lady of the state Republican Party, is, of course, a Republican. But she did not call herself a Republican in this context.

Dr. Anita Wells, the inviting host, did.

Webb and her husband, longtime state GOP chairman Doyle Webb, are adept at being partisan for judge purposes in a one-degree-of-separation kind of way.

The party host in Paragould has full free speech. She can call Barbara Webb what she wants. She was also nice enough on the phone to invite me to come to the event. I said I couldn't, which is what I think Barbara Webb ought to say, in the most appreciative sort of way.

In an ideal system of politics and justice, Webb would sense the need not to go along with outright confirmation of her Republican judging. She might have said, upon seeing what the invitation said after it was leaked into the media, that she regrettably would need to cancel her attendance.

But that would risk driving away natural Republican supporters, who now rule Arkansas by a vast majority, and who don't like their Republicans to be namby-pamby. And it would reduce her funding.

This is a national struggle, that of politicized justice, vividly in focus right now with a Democratic president's Justice Department bringing charges against his looming Republican opponent.

I'm certain Joe Biden has kept and will keep hands off. I'm also in a mood to remind that I, amid great scoff and ridicule, wrote when Biden was picking his Cabinet that he ought to excuse himself from the attorney general selection. Maybe he could have had the acting attorney general appoint a committee of Justice Department career employees to make the selection, which the president, regrettably, would have had to physically make.

That's imperfect. The attorney general would still work for the partisan-affiliated president. So would the regional federal prosecutors, called U.S. attorneys, who are nominated by presidents, and who change when the party affiliation flips in terms of White House occupancy.

But justice is justice no matter the election. Right?

It's important to offer this mitigating acknowledgment: Most legal matters are not partisan, though most are philosophical. Most cases get disposed of with judicial objectivity and the rule of law.

Thank goodness a series of Donald Trump-nominated judges ruled against their nominator's nonsensical election challenges in late 2020.

The partisan element presents itself on the big political issues--abortion, first and foremost. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett were put on the Supreme Court by Republicans to undo Roe v. Wade, and to be conservative when it counted, while Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Jackson were put on to try to save an abortion right or restore one in part, and to be liberal when it counted.

The system is necessarily tainted by pre-determined leanings rather than easily kept pristine with a clean slate of purely blind legal consideration. But it's that natural imperfection of the system that makes more important the attention to appearances of reaching for unattainable perfection.

I shouldn't be able to write confidently that the Republicanized Arkansas Supreme Court will rule in Gov. Sarah Sanders' favor in her dispute with the state Corrections Board when that matter inevitably comes before it.

It would be imperfect but better if I knew the political baggage carried under those robes but felt I needed to await a fair and judicious process that might prioritize the letter and spirit of the written law.

It's an important facade that the rule of judicial candidate conduct seeks to erect. But it's more of a low fence than a wall.

It takes personal discipline--and judicial discipline, which commends one for judgeship--not to take the easy step over it.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.


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