The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar Journal
April, 2017 Volume 91, No. 4
The Judicial Branch: Co-Equal and Independent

by William J. Schifino, Jr.

Page 4

A cornerstone of our democratic society is the co-equal status of each of our three branches of government and their respective independence. There is no question that an independent judiciary is essential to the very foundation of our democratic society. Just look to those dictatorial countries that do not have a truly independent judicial branch and lack the core values that come with respect for the “Rule of Law.”

As a buttress to secure our liberty, our constitutional system of checks and balances divides governmental power among the legislative branch, executive branch, and judiciary by giving the legislative branch the power to make laws, imposing on the executive branch the power to enforce laws, and assigning to the judiciary the power to interpret laws.

This separation of powers is the basis for our system of government.

Unlike the political branches of government, the executive and the legislative, the judiciary must be independent, that is a judiciary that acts fairly and impartially, in consideration of what is just, not what is popular. A judiciary that makes decisions after careful legal scrutiny firmly grounded on the rule of law, applied to the evidence in a particular case, without concerns for politics, the demands of special interest groups, or even the popular opinions of the majority.

Judicial independence is a perennial core value of our legal profession and a basic tenet of democracy. Our judges are expected to stand strong, despite the forces of popular opinion or political pushback, in making their rulings free from pressure.

Unlike candidates for office in the legislative and executive branches, judicial candidates are prohibited from sharing political views or how they might rule in certain cases. As nonpartisan neutrals, judges must make decisions based on the facts and law of the case, not on the politics of the time.

That is the requirement of an impartial judiciary and why we must vigorously protect the independence of our judges.

That is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when creating the three co-equal branches of government. An independent judiciary is essential to the very foundation of our democratic society.

The mission statement of The Florida Bar, a nonpartisan deliberative body led by a president and Board of Governors elected by lawyers across the state, is to “inculcate in its members the principles of duty and service to the public, to improve the administration of justice, and to advance the science of jurisprudence.” The first of the five primary objectives of The Florida Bar is to ensure the judicial system, a co-equal branch of government, is fair, impartial, adequately funded, and open to all.

Because of that mission and primary objective, the Bar’s Board of Governors takes strong stands against any attempts to encroach on the independence of the judiciary. And the Bar encourages legislators to properly fund the third branch of government so that Floridians can count on our courts to be up to the challenge of resolving disputes fairly and impartially.

Currently highlighted as a critical need, the courts are seeking $25.4 million — over a number of years — to address statewide technology needs of the trial courts.

Without adequate funding, the judiciary will not be able to fulfill its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government. When the three branches are knocked out of balance, our government falls out of balance; just what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison warned was a grave danger to avoid.

The Bar’s mission to defend and uphold judicial independence and adequate court funding is not a partisan mission. It is a constitutional duty, because sustaining the judicial branch is a matter of constitutional integrity, just as the framers intended.

As we once again navigate through another legislative session, with the Constitution Revision Commission on the horizon, I encourage all of our members to engage and lead. Please reach out to your representatives and senators, reminding them of the importance of a well-funded and independent judicial branch. It is good for Florida’s families and good for Florida businesses.

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[Revised: 04-25-2017]