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Judge's View: Declaration made clear the importance of free courts

As we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, the focus is usually on how a group of men in Philadelphia declared themselves free of British rule. What can often get lost is why. So it’s not a bad idea to go back and re-read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder. The declaration was published in its entirety on Wednesday’s News Tribune Opinion page — as it is every year for the Fourth of July.

Particularly close to my heart are several passages in the litany of grievances against King George III that pertain to courts and the system of justice:

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. …

“For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

“For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.”

In the context of the entire document, it is clear a free and independent judicial system was a significant concern of the Continental Congress and a main point of contention between the colonists and the British government. Those lessons are still relevant today.

The first passage above was in direct response to the actions of several states, notably North Carolina, to establish local courts. The British government refused to acknowledge any courts not established by the king. As a result, these states were without functioning courts for a considerable period, making it very difficult for the citizens to enforce their rights or punish wrongdoers. Today, most of those fights are budgetary rather than structural, but our state chief justice has always emphasized that courts are a core government function and need to have sufficient resources to protect the rights of citizens and hold people accountable for their actions.

The second passage declared the importance of an independent judiciary. Prior to the revolution, the British government made the tenures of judges at the discretion of the king and dictated that their salaries come directly from the king. When states attempted to pass laws to protect judges from removal “during good behavior,” the British government directed their governors not to acknowledge these laws. Unfortunately, attempts by executive or legislative branches to pressure judges or undermine their authority still exist today. In some states, judicial elections have become insanely pricey contests, leading to concerns about influence-peddling and corruption. Confidence in the court system requires judges to be independent.

The third and fourth passages were written to recognize the importance of local control of courts. Although the right to a jury trial was generally recognized for all Englishmen, the British government had passed laws giving jurisdiction over commerce offenses in the colonies to admiralty courts where no such right applied, and the judges making the decisions were paid by the king. It was a fairly common practice for colonists accused of certain crimes to be transported to England for trial rather than in the community where they lived. Our Bill of Rights guarantees the right to jury trial in criminal matters and in most civil suits, and our current venue laws ensure the trial will occur where the alleged offense occurs.

So enjoy the barbecue and fireworks, but take a minute to remember that a main reason for our independence was to ensure a fair and impartial court system to uphold the law.

Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He is running uncontested this fall for reelection.

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