Is It Impossible for Judges to Be Impartial?

A few weeks ago, President Trump got into a media debate against Chief Justice John Roberts over the question of judicial impartiality. 

“Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts,” Tweeted the President, “but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”

This was in response to Roberts’ claim that we should all be grateful for the independence of our judiciary.

And, at least from the point of The Spirited Reasoner, both men were partly right and partly wrong.

Yes, Mr. President, it’s true that judges are human, and they probably all come to the bench with subjective biases. And yes, Mr. Chief Justice, it’s true that most judges seem to be doing their best to hold their subjective biases in check.

So if there’s a little truth on both sides, what’s the big deal? Why is this debate important?

Because if we side with Chief Justice Roberts, we can at least hold out hope that a majority of our judges are striving–to the greatest extent humanly possible–to reach decisions based on an unbiased application of the facts to existing law, even when they don’t personally approve of that law. And if we can establish that certain judges aren’t capable of setting their own prejudices aside, then perhaps we need to tweak the manner in which we impeach judges. In other words, we leave open the hope that our republican form of government can move its judiciary closer to where it belongs–at a neutral starting point for every legal controversy.

But if we side with President Trump, then our judicial system is doomed to become one more casualty of our polarized political system. By labeling some judges “Obama judges” and others “Trump judges,” we shrug our shoulders and give up on the notion that our third branch of government can ever rise above partisan politics. Instead, we work hard to ensure that more of “our” judges are appointed and fewer of “theirs.”

Even if we admit that judges are human, and that some judges seem more politically biased than others, The Spirited Reasoner believes that we should never abandon the effort to demand impartiality. Even if the goal is humanly impossible, we move our civilization forward each time we strain, even a tiny bit, closer to that goal.

It’s worth the effort.