The Judiciary: A Pillar of Our Freedom

“Justice is blind.” We’ve all heard the expression, and most of us take for granted the truth it conveys-that our nation’s courts, with rare exceptions, are fair and impartial. Their doors are open to all litigants, however poor or powerless, and the judges and juries beyond those doors seek the truth without preference or bias. This universal access to justice is the very cornerstone of our American constitutional democracy.

The same is not true elsewhere in the world. North Korean prison camp survivor Soon Ok Lee, for example, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2002 concerning her treatment at the hands of her country’s “justice” system. According to her testimony, Lee was arrested on false embezzlement charges and severely tortured during the course of a fourteen month investigation. When she was finally brought to trial, she declared her innocence and requested a fair investigation. Two guards beat her in open court in response to this declaration, and the presiding judge abruptly adjourned the proceeding. Interrogators warned Lee after removing her from the courtroom that her family would suffer if she persisted in asserting her innocence: “What about your husband and son? If you accept the charge in court, they will be safe. Otherwise, you know what’s going to happen to them.”

In the face of this threat, Lee returned to court later the same day and confessed. No witnesses were called, no evidence was presented, and Lee’s lawyer said nothing. The North Korean judge nonetheless sentenced Lee to thirteen years in prison on the basis of her obviously coerced confession. In The Bright Eyes of the Tailless Beasts, a book Lee wrote after her release from prison and escape to South Korea, she recounts a prison term as brutal as her trial was unjust: “A prisoner has no right to talk, laugh, sing, or look in a mirror . . . . Women prisoners’ babies are killed on delivery. Prisoners have to work as slaves for 18 hours daily. Repeated failure to meet the work quotas means a week’s time in a punishment cell. A prisoner must give up her human worth.”

If Lady Justice is at her worst in North Korea, she is at her best in America. I served as a law clerk to Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which hears appeals from all federal district courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The hundreds of cases Judge Elrod considered during my year in her service ranged from multinational corporations fighting over billions of dollars to destitute prisoners seeking protection from abuse and unconstitutional prison conditions. From my perspective behind the bench, I saw that Judge Elrod gave the same careful consideration to the arguments of powerful corporations, powerless prisoners, and all other litigants, regardless of status or wealth. A federal judge with life tenure, a constitutionally guaranteed salary, and nothing to gain from long hours, she often worked late into the evening to make sure justice was done in every case that crossed her desk. Her commitment was truly extraordinary.

I left Judge Elrod’s chambers with a profound and deepened respect for the rule of law, and for the critically important work judges, juries, and court staff do for our nation every day. Though they labor behind closed doors, and receive far less recognition than their executive and legislative counterparts, these dedicated men and women are indispensable guardians of our freedom-our bulwark against Soon Ok Lee’s fate-and we owe them a tremendous debt for their service.

Published July 1, 2009 in The Forum.